An Analysis of South African Street Art Through 10 Murals
South Africa has existed and continues to exist in a very politically and socially charged reality. With apartheid in the recent past and continuing problems of inequality and integration into a new system, the country has seen quite a bit of activism in all forms surrounding dissatisfaction with its state of affairs. This resistance and dissatisfaction often manifests itself in the form of art. South Africa has had a rich history of activist art, and art was used to resist and criticize apartheid. This was often in the form of posters or paintings, and faced severe repression. South Africa is a massive country in terms of its economy, population, and cultural presence. There is a strong creative subculture of art in South Africa’s major cities, the country’s hubs of opportunity. It is unmistakably modern. This type of African art counteracts Western stereotypes: art being “judged inauthentic by Western evaluators if it has not been used for ‘traditional purposes’” (Steiner 101). While many outsiders may be focused on artifacts and primitivist sentiment, street art is vibrant, modern, and valuable. Its success shows Africans reclaiming the perception and value of their art, as street art has come into a far larger global focus lately. Many African street artists have become internationally successful and famous. Street art and murals on the urban geography of cities carries a strong message, whether it regards politics, the environment, or new artistic style. This is perhaps the main thing that separates it from urban graffiti. Cameron Cowick writes: “While some works of street art borrow elements from graffiti, street art almost always has a message… street art is a form of public communication. The goal of street art is for those beyond the street art community to see their work in a form of mass consumption” (Cowick 30). Cowick differentiates entirely between street art, graffiti, and public art. He adds that grafitti is typically individual and territorial, while street art is message-based and viewed in a more positive light. Along with its public perception, some South African street art certainly is positive and is not always a protest. It often focuses on the natural beauty of South Africa and its iconic animals. Some depict famous South Africans or South African historical figures. Lots of street art focuses on the human experience, and concepts like style, love, and desperation. South African street art depicts the human experience through the unique lifestyles, challenges, and visions of the country.
Location: Cape Town
Located in Cape Town, this piece seems to hold a more hopeful tone. Flowers are a common inclusion in street art, involving bright colors and natural beauty. This flower seems to represent the hope of the nation. The presence of the flower on a brick wall brings up symbolism of a rose growing through the concrete, or opportunity and beauty within the often-difficult conditions of urban environments. The hand clutching the rose brings humanity to the depiction and looks to me to represent the hope of the nation and the youth for a bright future, and appreciation for beauty in the present.
British artist Ben Slow painted this mural of anti-apartheid figure Ruth First on the request of filmmaker Shafiur Rahman. Rahman said street art “has an essentially political manifesto. It amounts to an act of defiance. In this instance it is an act of commemoration” (Said-Moorhouse). First was a white woman who was actively involved in the anti-apartheid fight for nearly the entire apartheid era. She was a Communist Party leader and investigative journalist who exposed many of the horrors of apartheid, especially in its first years. She was detained various times, censored, put on trial for treason, and eventually went into exile. She wrote memoirs about her experiences and the abusive tactics used in South African detention centers. She became a martyr of the anti-apartheid movement when she was killed in Mozambique in 1982 by a bomb sent by the South African police. Her sacrifice and contributions have made her a national hero and venerated figure throughout Africa.
Location: Cape Town
Acclaimed artist Faith47 painted this mural in her home city of Cape Town. In this mural, she protests the inequalities in the South African justice system. It uses Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and shows a blindfold over the eyes of Lady Justice. South Africa’s judiciary is one of the more trusted institutions in the country, but it still struggles with being impartial. Most citizens surveyed said that they believed the courts were more likely to convict someone who is poor, and nearly half said that the courts were more likely to convict someone who is black. Only 38% believe that the rich and poor are treated equally in court (Lizette).
This Johannesburg mural uses the vibrant colors and patterns of Shweshwe cloth, a widely-used fabric in South African clothing. Shweshwe cloth is one of the primary visual cultural markers of South Africa and is primarily used in traditional clothing. This mural depicts the beauty of South Africa both in the form of the women depicted and the cloth. The bright paint showcases the visual pop of the cloth and the pattern in the background provides a contrast and another beautiful example of Shweshwe. This mural represents the pride of South Africa in both its people and its traditional symbols. It is a perfect example of the balance between modernity and tradition, and how both make up a holistic view of the country in its art.
Location: Cape Town
South Africa takes deep pride in their large population of elephants, one of its main national symbols. Environmental conservation has become a hot-button issue all over the world, which South Africa often expresses through depictions of its most famous wildlife. Elephants are often poached for their ivory, a tragedy that many artists often include in their depiction of them. In this mural, a plant sprouts from the horn of an elephant, giving it a more hopeful tone. Indeed, there certainly is a reason to be hopeful for South African elephants. In one of the nation’s great successes, it has brought its elephant population up to 24,000 from a low of 150 in the 1920s (York).
Location: Mitchell’s Plain Township, outside Cape Town
The World Bank ranks South Africa as the most economically unequal country in the world. Often these wealth divides go along racial lines. There is perhaps no better picture of this than Mitchell’s Plain, a township created to segregate Black South Africans by the apartheid government in the 1970s. Yet, since apartheid has ended, things have not gotten much more equal. Shopping malls and slums contrast in Mitchell’s Plain today, a hub of commerce but also drug addiction and violence. Observers say “socio-economic rights have been systematically undermined and violated at the grassroots level. Critics have almost without exception placed the blame firmly at the door of government’s macroeconomic policy position” (Narsiah 33–34). South Africa’s population has become increasingly impatient with those who claim to be Mandela’s successors imposing policies that perpetuate inequality. The ANC made a turn towards neoliberalism and privatization after the success of the liberation movement that has led to these consequences. Mitchell’s Plain shows the failure of the ANC’s policies to create racial and economic equality. This piece expresses the deep frustration and disillusionment South Africans feel towards their economic situation.
Forever a national hero, Nelson Mandela makes frequent appearances in South African art. This mural, overlooking the Nelson Mandela Bridge, mixes a famous anti-apartheid leader, event and slogan. The reference to “purple” relates to a famous 1989 protest in Cape Town, in which protesters were sprayed by purple dye. During this, one protester managed to turn the dye on to the headquarters of the ruling National Party. Mandela and the “purple people” became leading symbols of anti-apartheid activism that is remembered well today. This mural was painted by an American and supported by both the South African and United States’ governments. It shows both the national and global impact and remembrance of the anti-apartheid movement.
Made by famous artist Falko One, this rooftop mural celebrates simple collaboration. Falko One is a famous street artist mostly known for his graffiti, who has been a constant presence in South African art since the apartheid era. He is known for painting in some of the poorer urban areas of South Africa. This mural uses the physical space it is in to deliver a message. The ledge provides the obstacle in the painting and is utilized as the main purpose. This shows how experienced street artists have great form in using urban installations and geography to add to their art. For this piece, it is used to deliver a simple message of helping and lifting others up over the obstacles that face them. The use of elephants, a main symbol of South Africa, is important to note.
Another piece by the brilliant Faith47, this detailed piece combines South Africa’s natural beauty with its urban atmosphere. This shows again how the best street artists are able to use urban surfaces and installations to their advantage. This mural uses its large space to create an eye-catching and slightly minimalist piece. The sandy color of the wall gives it a dusty feel, and the artist uses this to show the zebras kicking up dust with minimal color. The black and white color of the zebras helps them to blend in and look very natural in the urban environment. Zebras are another important animal native to South Africa, and this herd of them provides a picture of unity and strength.
Location: Cape Town
As we’ve seen, lots of street art contains both social and artistic messages. This piece by artist Nardstar incorporates the typical bright colors seen in many murals with a less explored artistic style. Nardstar is known for frequently using cubism in her art, often to exacerbate linear and color contrasts. This corresponds to the largely linear and fractured environment street art is produced in. This emphasizes how street artists are always putting their own personal touch on their work and incorporating different styles of work not largely seen in the street art sphere before. Young creative artists like Nardstar are helping to define a new era and perception of African art, in which human environments are utilized and national pride and protest is more visible than ever.
Ali Mazrui said that “we live in an age when a people’s perception of themselves can be deeply influenced by which continent or region they associate themselves with” (Mazrui 37). In his work, he argued that Africa had been defined by outside sources and that changed people’s perception of themselves. However, I’d like to use Mazrui’s point to argue in another direction. People’s perceptions of themselves and where they identify with come out in artistic expression. South African street art reveals people’s perceptions of themselves as African and South African, and shows how they choose to express their experiences based on their environment. There is no better place to express one’s experience than the walls and streets that they see and use every day. In this new age, past the days of Africa being defined by outsiders, creative minds define the continent anew to its own people. This theme is simply most visible in South Africa, a nation whose rich culture is expressed and seen by millions on a daily basis. Art shapes South Africa, which shapes South Africans’ perceptions of themselves.
Cowick, Cameron. “Preserving Street Art: Uncovering the Challenges and Obstacles.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 34.1 (2015): 29–44. Web. Dec 9, 2020.
Lancaster, Lizette. “Twenty years of justice reform in South Africa: what is there to show for it?” ISS Africa. July 23, 2013. Web. Dec 9, 2020 <https://issafrica.org/iss-today/twenty-years-of-justice-reform-in-south-africa-what-is-there-to-show-for-it>.
Mazrui, Ali A. A. The Africans: A Triple Heritage. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986.
Narsiah, Sagie. “Neoliberalism and Privatisation in South Africa.” GeoJournal 57.1/2 (2002): 29–38. Web. Dec 10, 2020.
Said-Moorhouse, Lauren. “Colorful, creative, inspiring: African street art.” CNN. Sep 27, 2013. Web. Dec 9, 2020 <https://www.cnn.com/2013/09/27/world/africa/creative-inspiring-african-street-art/index.html>.
Steiner, Christopher B. African Art in Transit. Cambridge [England: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
York, Geoffrey. “Southern Africa has Too Many Elephants and Lions. is Contraception the Answer?” The Globe and Mail, Aug 29, 2018, Web. Dec 10, 2020 <https://www.theglobeandmail.com/world/article-southern-africa-has-too-many-elephants-and-lions-is-contraception-the/>.