by Kristan Wood
The Maboneng Township Arts Experience is undoubtedly the first of its kind. It is so exciting to come across an initiative that combines a passion for creating art with the empowerment of people within townships. Maboneng, meaning “place of light” in Sotho, is a project that deserves interest and, more importantly, support.
Director of the project, Siphiwe Ngwenya, first conceptualised the experience back in 2001. He had just graduated from the National School of Arts and was in the process of contacting art galleries to exhibit his work. What he found, however, was a waiting list of two years.
Undeterred, Siphiwe decided to host his own exhibition back in his hometown, Alexander, only to have rain pouring down on the opening day. It seemed the mission of this fresh graduate was not to be realised.
But then came a turning point. People in the surrounding houses offered to keep his art in their homes so that it wouldn’t get wet and visitors could continue to view his work. This simple act of kindness sparked inspiration. Could it be possible to create employment in the townships with an authentic ‘art’ experience for locals and tourists?
Since that day in 2001, the Maboneng Township Arts Project has invited hundreds of homeowners to offer their space as art galleries. Half day trips last approximately four hours, and visitors are welcomed into the homes to view art, chat to families and even engage with the artists in areas such as Gugulethu, Kayamandi and Langa in Cape Town, as well as Alexander and Soweto in Johannesburg.
I had the privilege to chat to Siphiwe and his brother and co-director, Bongani Ngwenya. What stayed with me after our conversation was the ultimate goal for the project: turning townships into towns. The project takes the concept of gentrification and turns it on its head. Instead of new businesses and families settling in the townships and displacing current residents, we have people who are experiencing a sense of ownership in their community.
Mini-ecosystems are created within the townships through the displaying and selling of art. Each time a day ticket is purchased, homeowners receive a dividend. And when an artwork is purchased, they receive a further dividend. It just goes to show that the grass doesn’t have to be greener on the other side: we can make a plan to water it right here.
So how can we go about supporting the project? Bongani explained that tourists and foreigners make up the bulk of day-to-day visitors, whereas locals are more inclined to attend the art festivals and monthly dialogues hosted by the organisation. It’s a start, but there is surely more we can do. The news fed to us by the media about our townships is so predominantly negative. Here is one of those chances to change perceptions.
Even in low resource areas, people can be given the opportunity to create an income for themselves. In this way entire communities can grow on firmer foundations. This is what the Maboneng Township Arts Experience aims to achieve. And in doing so, they’re not giving you a detached and broad overview of the townships. They’re humbly saying, “Welcome to our home.”
To book a visit to the home galleries in the townships, visit www.maboneng.com