The Power of Pavement Pictures

As spring brings new life to Stellenbosch streets, it also brings to them – as MELVYN MINNAAR notes – an exhibition of powerful, judiciously placed photographs that will intrigue all passers-by.

The famous image ‘Nuit de Noël’ (Happy Club) (1963) by Mali photographer Malick Sidibé greets visitors on the corner of Drostdy Street.

WINTER – a wet-wet cold winter – is a remarkable experience in Stellenbosch. The elements play dramatic games, with light falling though hibernating oak trees and off water-washed historical gems, and sun-shadows constantly changing. A perfect time then to launch an exceptional public project that takes pictures seriously.

This is the uplifting work of the Stellenbosch Outdoor Sculpture Trust (SOST). And another of its literally eye-catching successes.

‘Bar Beach Victoria Lagos’ (1999) by Akinbode Akinbiyi (Nigeria) in the Dorpsteeg.

In this toned-down winter light of promise (spring will, as always, follow) photographs come fully into view, into play, into eye-engaging action. For the latest SOST project – its ninth – buys into the power of the highly visible and the charged power of photography on a majestic scale.

In sunny spring, the streets of Stellenbosch will intrigue hundreds of visitors, locals and patrons, with this bold, vibrant show. It will touch on many dreams and the dreams of many, for as long as it takes next year’s autumn leaves to fall.

Under the finely tuned eye of curator Anelisa Mangcu, eight masterpieces by eight photo artists have been allocated site-specific positions for maximum impact. The names of the masters ring bells of African salutation: Malick Sidibé from Mali, James Barnor from Ghana, Calvin Dondo from Zimbabwe, Akinbode Akinbiyi from Nigeria, and South Africa’s Berni Searle, Obie Oberholzer, Roger Ballen and David Goldblatt.

These are names of museum fame and to find their art on the pavements of Stellenbosch is a feather in the SOST’s cap. It was an undertaking that meant wide and meaningful negotiation with the artists and agents. In particular, obtaining the famous ‘Nuit de Noël (Happy Club)’, a 1963 photograph by the late Malian master Malick Sibidé, is a feat for the SOST.

To discover, as you walk around a corner, an image that is celebrated for its powerful impact is to bring the hallowed museum encounter into each and every passer-by’s world. Art on the street. Art that confronts us with a new experience, twists our visual routine and maybe triggers something entirely new about the place, the world and how we think about them.

The house-painter and his family, Pretoria Street, Hillbrow (1973) seem perfectly at home on the side of this building in Market Street. Image by South African master photographer David Goldblatt.

Curator Mangcu says she set out to engage us with the freedom of dreams by choosing imagery that spans our African experience. For her theme ‘Freedom, I dream up for myself and others’, she selected artists and their photographs that spark such a notion. “This is a freedom that explores a visual language, a language that bridges gaps between cultures, creates understanding and inspires empathy and connection,” she explains.

As you walk the route of the outdoor exhibition, scanning each image as you would in a gallery, the subtlety of her choice pans out in an astounding visual meeting of minds. She sensitively gauged the way dreaming can be evoked.
“The works selected in this exhibition are intended to be more mindful to the subtleties of our dreams and how we view the world. The medium of photography teaches us to look, to look again and to do so harder. It has the ability to change perception, to encourage understanding and to create a sense of urgency when needed.”

‘Ouma Anna Jaars 99-year-old. Rooifontein. Northern Cape’ (circa 1987) by Obie Oberholzer at the top of Church Street.

On a winter’s day, bathed in grey light, I encountered ‘Ouma Anna Jaars 99-year-old. Rooifontein. Northern Cape’ (circa 1987), in all her five-metre-tall glory on a Church Street wall near the digs student friends and I shared so many decades ago. It was an astounding experience: her hands and piercing eyes holding a plethora of histories, of stories, of sheer survival that must inspire any student – as we once were. Obie Oberholzer’s glorious portrait takes on a saintly glow, echoed by the NG Moederkerk across the road. Here, as in each of the sites, the street position provides the dynamic and prompts the energy of the eye-to-eye meeting.

South African photographer Berni Searle welcomes visitors to Stellenbosch at the lower end of Dorp Street with this image entitled ‘Lament II’ (2011).

Lower down in Dorp Street, Berni Searle’s ‘Lament II’ (2011) offers a pair of golden hands as welcome, as refuge, as invitation to this town where so many ancient dreams mix.

It struck me how Mangcu’s chosen images can and will affect the thinking of the many young people who walk these ways for their own education of life, their high dreams. Can they ever imagine the sweet shuffle of those dreamy teenagers that Sibidé captured on camera 40 years ago?

What will today’s Maties – given the current debates at their university – make of ‘The house-painter and his family, Pretoria Street, Hillbrow’, which the brilliant David Goldblatt recorded 50 years ago? Can they read into that homely image the stuff that dreams are made of that Mangcu references?

Posing with James Barnor’s ‘Two Sisters in-law, Florence and Gifty’ taken in his home country of Ghana in 1973.

With their self-confident poses and smart outfits, have the ‘Two Sisters in-law, Florence and Gifty’ (1973/74), fulfilled their dreams? Or has Ghanaian artist James Barnor, nearing 100 years of age, set them up for it?

Zimbabwean Calvin Dondo’s haunting image ‘Heather’ (1991) in Ryneveld Street.

Calvin Dondo from Zimbabwe shows ‘Heather’, an uppity youngster in 1991. Today her dream to become a PhD graduate is nearing completion, the artist tells us.

Covering the side of a container on Die Braak is the image ‘Dejected’ (1999) by American/South African photographer Roger Ballen.

Ah, those many dreams. A touch of surrealism in the enigmatic ‘Bar Beach Victoria Island, Lagos’ (1999) from Nigerian Akinbode Akinbiyi’s series Sea Never Dry. A nightmare perhaps in Roger Ballen’s ‘Dejected’ (1999) from his series Outland.

Andi Norton, a founding trustee and the project director of the SOST, has pointed out how the placing of the Ballen was motivated by the site. “[The photograph] has a grittiness that suits the industrial feel of the container on Die Braak. The container houses a borehole as part of the local disaster/ drought relief programme and the image of the almost emaciated man resonates with this sense of emergency.”

It is obvious that the sites were very specifically chosen – kudos to Mangcu and her team. It is less obvious that the logistics of this project were founded on support and tenacity. Special element-resistant materials were used for the giant prints and all were signed off by the artists.

It all costs money. Copyrights were negotiated. Goodwill came in the shape, for exam- ple, of Laurence Graff, owner of the Delaire Graff wine estate. And the entire project fitted in under the supporting patronage of Private Clients by Old Mutual Wealth.

The freedom of these magnificent pictorial dreams is an evocation for all seasons. V