Maboneng Township Arts Experience

Artist: Siphiwe Ngwenya
Location: Various townships, including Alexandra, Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, and Gauteng, South Africa
Year of completion: 2012
Researcher: Jaqueline White

The logo for the Maboneng Township Arts Experience features a light bulb, the classic symbol for inspiration. For this annual South African art festival, the light bulb also has a much more a clichéd meaning. Alexandra, the overcrowded township in which the festival was founded, is an area near Johannesburg where black South Africans were forced to live under apartheid. Still one of the poorest areas in the country, it was long known as the ‘Dark City’ because of its lack of electricity.

By turning township homes into art galleries and streets into performance venues, the Maboneng Township Arts Experience aims to dispel a metaphorical darkness, in which township residents can view art as beyond their reach, and outsiders can stigmatize the townships as dangerous locales—not vibrant cultural centers. Maboneng means ‘place of light.’

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The now annual festivals were founded in Alexandra in 2001 by Siphiwe Ngwenya, a fine artist and sculptor, who is probably best known as rapper Master Sip, frontman of Natives from the Sun and former member of the hip-hop group Skwatta Kamp. When he was growing up in Alexandra, Ngwenya’s mother baked and sold bread from their family home, which gave him an early appreciation for the potential mixing of domestic life and commerce. He is producer and head curator of the Maboneng Township Arts Experience; Zipho Dayile is co-curator.

In 2012, the 100-year anniversary of Alexandra, the Maboneng Township Arts Experience in Alexandra was scheduled to coincide with Cape Town Art Week in September, during which galleries coordinate their openings. Highlights of a three-hour walkabout in Alexandra included the staging of a history play about Alexandra’s unsung heroes and a performance by pantsula dancers about township life. A syncopated, quick-stepping dance form that has evolved into a form of social commentary, pantsula originated in Alexandra.

The festivals expanded in 2012 to two additional locales: the Maboneng Madadeni Arts Experience took place during an October weekend in Newcastle in KwaZulu, and over a November weekend, 30 Gugulethu homes became exhibition spaces for the Maboneng Gugulethu Arts Experience. Residents and visitors could sample delicious township cuisine such as bunny chow and fat-cakes, watch captivating dance performances curated by Theo Ndindwa from iKapa Dance Theatre, see graffiti by some of area’s finest graffiti artists, as well as photos produced through a nonprofit photography training program.

Over the previous decade, the project has turned over 70 homes into temporary galleries and exhibited over 50 artists. The festivals showcase township artists, encourage local children to see art as a viable career path, and provide residents numerous revenue streams through the sale of art and food, as well as rental of their gallery homes. In addition, the Maboneng Township Arts Experience has enticed nonresidents and even foreign tourists into areas they might not typically visit, helping to facilitate cultural exchange and end negative perceptions of townships.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency