Can art help heal the lingering effects of apartheid planning?

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager, and Garret Gantner
Johannesburg, 8 August 2016

Subjected to the constraints of apartheid planning and legislation during the height of the former regime, the suburb of Westbury in Johannesburg still experiences the lingering hardships of this spatial legacy. How can art be a part of social change in such contexts?

The Westbury park and bridge, currently under construction, is a major public space investment into the area by the City of Johannesburg. While the design team of IYER Urban Studio and LOCAL STUDIO Architecture and Urban Design sought to address the spatial consequences of destruction, underdevelopment and segregation in order to encourage social change in the urban landscape, artist and architect Lorenzo Nassimbeni was commissioned to create a public mural to adorn the walls and amphitheater of the park. Drawing from his architectural background, an underlying principle in Nassimbeni’s work is the representation of urban space within the context of urban space itself: "I generally look to represent the context of an urban space or building, and display this representation on one of the surfaces of the urban space or building itself. In this way, I create a dialogue between the urban space/building and its context."

With the park and bridge designed with a sensitivity to context, the potential for a dialogue also existed between the mural with the park and broader context. The lived legacy of segregation together with the location of the park at the boundary of Westbury and Coronationville provided the first clues to the design process, namely that of boundary conditions. The mural thus seeks to speak to three major boundaries, between Westbury and Coronationville, between Westbury and Sophiatown, and between the areas occupied by the two faction gangs of the suburb. 

In terms of methods of representation, Nassimbeni describes the “typology” of this work as one of community participation. In acknowledging both the Johannesburg Development Agency’s request, and his own concerns of relationship to context, Nassimbeni began involving the local community in the design and implementation of the mural. The youth center of Westbury was therefore engaged in a series of workshops which related to a process of interpreting and understanding the site.

"The group of youth center members mapped the environment of Westbury according to a brief which I set, which encouraged the workshop participants to analyze and record the boundary elements of Westbury both photographically and with the use of drawings. These will be collated by myself and used as the basis upon which the overall mural design is created. The boundary conditions of Westbury, as interpreted by the community of the area, become the lines which form the composition of the mural," says Nassimbeni.

The strength of this project lies in the fusion of the artist’s own interpretation with the interpretation of the context by the community, coupled with the individual personal narratives uncovered in the process. This interpretive process, and the integration of architecture and art, begins to speak to ways in which art (and indeed spatial practice) can be a medium for social change. 

Photo: Lorenzo Nassimbeni

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