Search This Blog

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Gallery Queens of Maboneng

By Andrew Mulenga

A few of you light-reading devotees of this space may be bored to the core by now with the continued publishing of a series of articles from the African Creative Economy Conference (ACEC 2013) recently held in Cape Town which have pretty much been overloads of statistical information and jargon.

Artist Siphiwe Ngwenya addressing the
Creative Economy Conference in Cape Town
Justifiably, you may be hungry for an unassuming exhibition review or artist’s interview, but not just yet. Please allow for one more, the last but not least from the ACEC 2013 which fortunately is less drenched in statistical information.

It tells the tale of a humble idea born of marginalization and subsequent rejection that has transformed ordinary township homes into art galleries, giving talented artists a platform to showcase and sell their work, casting to the winds the western system of exhibiting and collecting art.

Called the Maboneng Township Arts Experience, it has turned South African recording and visual artist Siphiwe Ngwenya’s township of Alexandra on the outskirts of Johannesburg into an art gallery, and 10 years down the line has expanded to three centres, Gugulethu in Cape Town and Madadeni in KwaZulu-Natal. 

“There are more than 2,000 townships in South Africa alone and there is not too much art going on in most of them. It’s so hard for most artists in these townships to have a voice or join the discourse of the arts, even just to get involved in the economy of the arts; basically that’s the administration, production and distribution, all those things,” Ngwenya told an attentive ACEC 2013 audience, as one of the speakers at the gathering.

“I completed my Matric, Standard 10… I don’t know what you call it in other countries but it’s your final year in High School. I had some paintings so I thought I was so good and will be accepted, but it didn’t turn out that way,” explained the founder member of SA hip-hop group Skwatta Kamp. “I walked with some of my paintings to the nearest gallery that was two hours away, and they told me of their two-year itinerary, because they are a busy gallery. I walked back home, I decided there and then to start exhibiting on the streets”.

A proud Gallery Queen poses with
 art works in her living room -
Photo Courtesy of Maboneng Township Art Experience
The same youthful enthusiasm that excitedly drove the artist to a mainstream gallery only to be turned back at the door is the same enthusiasm that lead him to come up with the Maboneng Township Arts Experience because he did not sell his art on the street corners of Alexandra – or Alex is it is also called-- for too long. Realizing that there was not enough art awareness in his neighbourhood and a general perception of art ‘not belonging’ particularly among the youths, he started involving other local artists and encouraging children to see art as a sustainable career path. At this point, Ngwenya and team started exhibiting in houses close to his mother’s home which he says was popular for the sale of fritters.

“We call it the Maboneng Township Arts Experience because Alex used to be called the ‘Dark City’ and Maboneng means a place of light in Sesotho,” He explained. He said the township is also known as ‘Gomora Maboneng’ a name which is a remnant from the period that it never had electricity, a time when it was a no-go-area to outsiders, because of the crime.

“The name also suggests a break of a new day or the disappearance of darkness and its ills. Maboneng will bring light, joy and promote the identity of Townships and their people. Create a brand for Townships, jobs and economic opportunities for the residents of Townships through the medium of arts and culture.”

He said there are now about 15 people working permanently on the project and that when exhibitions are on display and the annual festival activities that also involve theatre and dance are in full swing, Alex is the safest place to be, contrary to people’s perceptions mainly due to the townships past.

Of course Ngwenya neglected to remind the audience that Alex does have its reputation of violence. The 2008 series of countrywide xenophobic attacks in South Africa started in the Township. It was attributed to an influx of foreigners, largely Zimbabweans whom South Africans accused of taking their jobs.

“Those who expect that the townships are very dangerous are wrong. It is a great big lie, locals are hungry for work and they are tired of moving long distances. We have people who we call the ‘Uncles’ or the ‘Johnny Walkers’ that are security guards. Even guys that you call criminals, but we work with them and empower them as our security guards,” he added.

The welcoming Gallery Queens will let you
 in as long as you have bought a ticket
- Photo Courtesy of Maboneng Township Art Experience
“These galleries are homes, you can actually go there and view at any time but you have to buy a ticket from the local ticket store. There is also a huge art buyer market so it is also commercially viable. The home owner becomes the gallery owner, and their kids start working inside the gallery,” he explained flipping through photographs of motherly looking, middle-aged women with welcoming faces seated on cosy sofas in their living rooms with paintings in the backgrounds. A R150 ticket [just above eighty Zambian Kwacha] will get you into any of the galleries.

The women actually remind one of the fabled, beer-peddling Shebeen queens of Southern African townships and villages that open their doors to thirsty neighbourhood guzzlers, except of course these highly regarded mother-figures open their doors to people with a different type of thirst, that of a visual arts kind.

But interestingly, the similarities do not end there, the beer-peddling Shebeen queens’ have their history rooted in marginalization as much as Maboneng’s ‘Gallery Queens’ – if we can call the latter such. The Shebeen queens provided an alternative to pubs and bars, when locals – or natives as it were – were denied entry during apartheid, colonial, and in certain cases post-colonial times depending on which country. Similarly the Gallery Queens are providing space for artists as an alternative for galleries where they otherwise ‘do not fit in’.

“These gallery owners will actually sit down with you on their couch not like any other gallery owners you’ve seen before,” said Ngwenya of the ‘gallery queens’. “It is a more interactive experience that the township has. But remember this is real work by proper artists”.

But what is probably the icing on Ngwenya’s cake is the library and permanent art gallery that the Maboneng project through the help of partners has put up at his former school.

Visitors to the township galleries are
safely guided and protected by staff
“You can go to my old primary school, [to see art and the library]  where my old teachers used to beat me up, pupils use it, but even those who are not from the school often come with their parents,” he said “But this thing is growing. Like I said there are more than 2000 townships and I cannot do this alone. But we also hope to work with townships from all-over Africa; we hope to see this end poverty and misconception of townships all over the African continent”.

It may sound ambitious, but Ngwenya’s ambition does have a remarkable track record in its wake. Here is a fellow that grew up in the slums, is a founder member of an award-winning hip-hop outfit that has been at the forefront of urban youth culture, built a library at his old school, turned his neighbourhood into a gallery, has a four storey sculpture at the Raphael Hotel in Sandton and as if that is not enough, went on to serve as co-director of an organization with which he built and took a mobile living station – powered by renewable energy -- to the South Pole and back [ a fact that he did not share on the podium].

Nevertheless, in his closing remarks to the ACEC 2013 that were overpowered by a round of applause Ngwenya humbly made it a point that he was happy that the Maboneng Township Arts Experience had made people begin to understand what art means and what it can do to change their lives.

All in all, Ngwenya is a real life Robin Hood, because whether or not the Maboneng Township Arts Experience is financially lucrative as he claims, it is a delight to know that people in his township now appreciate art.

Looking at this South African concept as a Zambian, one can only observe it with smouldering envy and wish such a thing could happen here.

We live in a country whose inhabitants have little or no art appreciation beyond adolescence or secondary school level. A country whose academic and social elite including some leaders have no idea what art can do for a community in terms of job creation. The first questions they ask you when you introduce yourself as an artist or singer are: “so you can draw me?” or “can you sing for me?”
There are entire generations of Zambians who are clearly beyond artistic salvation no matter how hard you preach art to them; art will always amount to a pencil and piece of paper. Unlike the gallery queens of Maboneng who are now saved, for them it is too late.


  1. Interesting read....ART is Zambia is considered a white man's luxury

  2. so true.....we have a large group of people who are a lost cause when it comes to art appreciation in the country, however I am of the opinion that there is still some hope (probably very very very little hope) that art salvation may come to Zambia if artists got busier with socially interactive art projects and pieces, and more public art such as the mosaic piece along Cairo.

    I feel also that a little sacrifice is needed...the impression I get from this article is one telling of a story of an individual who dared to work hard and sacrifce to get to a given point.....I am guessing he couldnt sell his work at the prices he would have asked for at the posh galleries he could not get his work contrast to this very few Zambian artists if not none, are willing to die a little for the salvation of the rest. Reedeming the arts in Zambia is going to have to be a two way thing, in return for appreciation of art by masses, good art has to be availed to the masses. Fact is most of the masses cannot afford art and tend to keep away, but if they begin to see it regularly in different forms and medias in public spaces maybe just maybe salvation will come.