South Africa. The art of changing

The Imbali Visual Literacy project, an NGO started thirty years ago to find creative work for the talented children of the more disadvantaged black families. We visit the place.

The morning sunlight streams through the windows of the old building and lights up the table around which seven black boys and girls are sitting. The speaker is one of them, who occasionally stops to answer questions or hear suggestions. This is a classroom but it is located in an old repair shop for buses and trams known by all as the Bus Factory, an example of how the years have transformed Johannesburg.

Today, the huge shed in Newtown is the seat of some civic offices for development and various cultural organisations. One of them is the Imbali Visual Literacy project, an NGO started thirty years ago to find creative work for the talented children of the more disadvantaged black families; it moved to this location in 2002. «We wanted to belong to the Newtown Cultural District as it seemed the right place to be », explains Justine Watterson, 40, the South African who directs the project.

It is the artistic and historical importance of the area that is the main reason why the authorities plan to re-launch it. Its emblem, 500 busts sculpted in wood, represents the various African peoples, and, since 2001, has dotted the quarter. They are the work of the Mozambican Americo Guambe who recently restored them, creating some anew to replace those stolen or damaged over the years. It is evident that much remains to be done if we leave the sculptures behind us and enter the Museum Africa, the historical heart of the Cultural District.

The main hall is practically empty. On an iron frame hangs an enormous poster of a young Nelson Mandela: the poster was part of a display of four years ago but now abandoned. “Some years ago – Justine Watterson also admits – there was an office for the purpose of improving Newtown, including such aspects as public health, cleaning and security; then the cash from the Town Hall dried up.” Recently, a festival sponsored locally tried to reverse the tendency. “They asked us – Watterson tells us – to bring our work out into the streets” and students present and past created decorations in the square and on the steps of the Museum.

Sello Mdlane is one of the youths involved: in the hall displaying school activities where some of his companions operate a large loom while others add the finishing touches to handbags, clothes and other small objects, he stays close to one of windows, concentrating preparing the sketch of a stamp for printing cloth. He is 29 and comes from a township west of Johannesburg and continues to collaborate with Imbali where he finished the courses. On his work apron he has printed a motto:  “I have never seen a colour I didn’t like. It seems I have to do the best I can with what I get,” he explains.

For Sello Mdlane, as for others of his age, the new project for development is an opportunity. But there are also many difficulties. “I am now contacting bigger clients but there is a lot of paperwork and some of us clash with the bureaucrats.” This is surely not the only obstacle to be overcome in this land in which youth unemployment is extremely high: Two thirds of the 4.3 million unemployed for more than a year, according to the latest statistics, are under 34. Plans for the renewal of cities may well be pointless if they do not receive the investment they so urgently need. (Davide Maggiore)