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Street Art – The Fascinating Case Study Of The Salt River Murals

The key rule of street art is that no wall’s design is untouchable. If you believe you can make a mural better, go ahead and add your mark. During the recent Israel-Palestine unrest, some local South African street artists did exactly this. They modified murals, done by artists during previous International Public Arts Festivals (IPAF), to reflect their commentary. A tear filled with the Palestinian flag appeared in the eye of a woman in a head scarf with her prayer beads. The artwork portraying green, white, black and red tones now represent the colours of the Palestinian flag.

IPAF Festival organiser and leader in transforming spaces through urban art, NPO Baz-Art, welcomes the evolution of the artworks, calling it inspiring. “While we are a strictly apolitical and non-religious organisation, we welcome creativity and talent and we know the medium of street art is a powerful platform for activism,” says Baz-Art co-founder, Alexandre Tilmans.

“The murals are based in Salt River, the site of the IPAF. We have profound respect for this community, which we have worked closely with for more than five years. We know this was a cause close to some of their hearts. We consider the recent modifications as creative commentary on very serious, impactful events, which is the very essence of street art.”

Art as commentary

Tilmans adds that in recent times we’ve seen many movements sweep the world, from Black Lives Matter to climate change marches. “There’s an upsurge in activism, often driven by young people. We’re seeing more and more people use their voices to advocate for what they believe to be right. In the case of street art, people are using their talents and tools to make statements. Think about the recent ‘Mural of Marianne’ – named a symbol of France – which was ‘defaced’ with red tears in the recent Paris riots against the law preventing people from posting pictures of police on duty.

“Street art has always been a form of commentary – now more than ever. Art is a great democratiser. It’s something everyone can draw meaning from. It’s one of the best ways to share people’s stories. Yes, this can be polarising. It can also be unifying. It’s a means to start – and continue – a conversation.”

While art as activism is not new, Tilmans does wonder what the future of street art may look like. “Street art follows the rule of the jungle. Artists who believe they can do better can adapt or modify a wall. But of course, it would be considered ethical and professional to speak to the original artist and get the necessary permission. A bit like a DJ remixing a song. I think this medium has a pivotal role to play in empowering communities to express their values and localise global – and national – issues that they feel strongly about. The Salt River murals are an ongoing dialogue. They evolve with each new artists’ input.”

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Ilukuluku Collective who participated in the IPAF 2021, painted the words ‘All of us’ in bright colours at Salt River Circle, which was also recently defaced. Shaun Sebastian, founder and creative director of Ilukuluku Collective says, “The original intention of ‘All of us’ was to speak to the local community with our research dating back to 1501, relating to the indigenous Khoisan and Indians who came to cross the Spice Route.” The collective has spoken about the dynamics around street art and its impact on local, social, economic, political and religious situations and have decided to not comment on political or religious aspects since they are an art collective. “While we do realise that there are many broken situations when it comes to world politics and religion. Our message was never intended to be translated. We decided not to rectify the mural as we thought the community’s cry must be heard and we respect that. However, there are certain aspects we feel strongly about – the person, individual, collective or group would’ve been more than welcome to make contact and collaborate on the artistic expression expanding on the message” says Sebastian.

The collective experienced mixed emotions after hearing about their work that was defaced and hoped that it would’ve been a more tasteful appropriation, adding a bit more skill. “The bottom line for us is that 1: the wall is private property, 2: before we entered this space we had built relationships with the local community to establish what the artwork would be and 3: we entered the zone and created a beautiful art piece that took about sixty volunteers over six days to complete with thousands of sponsored litres of paint, hundreds of hours and great personal sacrifices.”

Had the mural been tagged, it would’ve been great, for example, we understand that when you hand over a building to the public, it’s open for interpretation. However, it would’ve been great having some artists contribute to the artwork and not just deface. We’ve heard and respect the cry, and given it the airtime for it to have its voice. At some point we might refurbish the wall to its original state” concludes Sebastian.  

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Anthea Missy, an artist who participated in the IPAF 2018, created “save our trees, save us“  mural to raise awareness around the responsibility to protect the environment as a natural space of health and nature, and highlight the deforestation and protests in South Africa as part of the climate crisis. “I believe the street is a public space that belongs to everyone. As an artist, when I produce a mural visible to the public, and made for people to appreciate, I get to enjoy the privilege of speaking in public in order to create a symbol that remains in the space for a certain amount of time and sometimes for a while. Given the purpose of art to express a certain time and perspective that is mainly social, I understand that some artists may use my works to express their opinion and add democratic meaning” says Missy.

A resident from Salt River, who requested to remain anonymous, says that visitors from all around Cape Town were amazed at the murals in Salt River while doing the street art walking tours at the IPAF 2021. “The tour guides incorporated Salt River’s history as part of their tour’s commentary. Given how beautiful the walls turned out and the message which tied into this year’s theme “sustainability”, I always thought the community would appreciate the art on their homes, which some really do” says the resident.

The future of street art

Tilmans concludes, “Historians have found evidence of street art dating back to the 1st century B.C.E. with the Romans writing messages to each other on their walls. During the French Revolution, rebels defaced artworks to make a statement about the country’s hierarchical society. One side of the Berlin wall was full of vivid pictures, the other side bare concrete. The starkness was the statement. Most recently, the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ were sprayed on walls around the world – an anguished movement in memorial of George Floyd.

“Street art isn’t new. But, like the murals, the medium is evolving. The nature of activism is changing. And with it, the future of freedom of expression. It’s an interesting question to ask what street art will look like in another 10 to 50 years’ time. Will we be freer or less free to express ourselves? Will there be ‘digital defacing’ – for example, could there be a form of ‘street crypto art’ delivered via non-fungible tokens?

“Street art also comes with an interesting question of ownership. For example, Banksy’s art was removed from the wall and sold for six figures against the artist’s wishes. But how much ownership of the artwork did he really have given his canvas belonged to someone else? Part of the journey with this art is letting go. That includes accepting that someone else may modify your work. Their story becomes part of your story. It takes a certain humility to accept that.”