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Art Transforming Activism

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Photo by Ayana Auburg

By Ayana Aubourg

Soweto--A black python snake made of used car tires lies in the center of the Art School at Funda Community College in this huge, historically black township outside Johannesburg. Vibrant, colorful murals give life to the dim yellow walls that decorate the school.

Funda was created in 1984 as a resource for students following the 1976 student uprising here that marked the resumption of mass protest against the racist apartheid government after they tried to impose the Afrikans language on all the students. The art works created by the students today are predominantly made from recycled materials and voice the problems that their community faces now.

Thumelo Mokopakgosi, a tutor and artist who graduated from Funda, avoids the term "recycled" as he describes his art as giving new life to old materials. One of his pieces, a sheep morphing into a scorpion, symbolically addresses xenophobia in South Africa.

While xenophobia is commonly interpreted as a phobia of immigrants or people coming from outside the country, Mokopakgosi notes that xenophobia is simply the fear of strangers, some of whom can even be your neighbor.

Mokopakgosi's artwork is a metaphor for the deportation process in South Africa. He says that living creatures, such as roaches and spiders, provoke fear in people despite that they often won't kill anyone.

"It's almost the same type of fear to kill roaches in your kitchen," says Mokopakgosi, adding that once you kill two roaches, many more will appear. He connects this concept to the xenophobic attacks on foreigners as well as the deportation of immigrants.

According to Mokopakgosi, once the government deports three hundred people, more than double the amount return in attempt to cross the border. Most of Mokopakgosi's themes carry messages that work to bridge art and activism together.

Mokopakgosi says that he is able to excel in his art because he is so emotionally attached to Funda. He sees Funda as a home away from home and enjoys the political dynamics that are interwoven with the community.

At Funda, the type of art produced is not meant to be placed in a frame, he says. Rather, it is raw materials transformed into conceptual art. Much of the student artwork depicts the realities of their lives in a post-apartheid society.

Dudumiselo Mabaso, a passionate writer, speaks of the importance of creating art and organizing for social change.

She reflects on the 1976 student uprisings, where high school students peacefully protested for better education in Soweto. Their march was confronted by police violence, in which 12-year-old Hector Pieterson was shot and killed by the police. Uprisings spread throughout the entire country in solidarity of the student struggle.

As June 16 approaches, the national day to honor all the youth who lost their lives in the struggle against Apartheid, students at Funda prepare to bring awareness and share their art with the community.

Mabaso says that Hector Pieterson symbolizes the youth of South Africa. The bullet that killed him is a metaphor for the challenges that are killing the young people today, such as unemployment, teen pregnancy and drugs.

She says the youth are growing impatient with the slow process of change post-apartheid. Many face the same challenges now but in a different form. She believes that the government is not going to solve their problems.

The change they're looking for will only come from the people, say these artists. To Masbaso, the question is not what can the government do for them but rather what can they as individuals do for each other.

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Simmons College students share a moment of solidarity with Funda students and graduates. Photo by Dan Connell.

Posted by South Africa Group on May 18, 2014 5:16 PM
Category: South Africa 2014

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