There is a saying in my mother-tongue, isiXhosa, similar to the English saying of "curiosity killed the cat:"
"This speaks to the one who dares to go after what they want to do. They usually get burnt and do not get the desired result. Other times, though, some get exactly what it is that they desire or desire to see."
Professor Phumla Gqola appropriates this isiXhosa proverb in her article that speaks to black feminism in South Africa; "Ufanele Uqavile” (Gqola, 2012). In the article, Gqola explains how black women are written about in the Western world in a way that suggests they have no agency. And yet, she argues, they do have agency in a way that does not impose on others.et these others, who speak on behalf of the black woman, see fit to impose their opinion on black female bodies without their consent (Gqola, 2012).
It is a universally acknowledged truth that black women in Africa are more vulnerable than their male counterparts in the same page groups, similar class settings and other binaries the world concerns itself with when talking about a particular group of people, in a particular way, and for particular reasons. As an African, and a woman at that, it should not surprise me that I am often talked about--especially in my absence. As an African, I have no control of how I am talked about, written about, related to or seen.
On the 9-11 May, 2018, at the Boardwalk in Port Elizabeth, more than 300 scientists, technologists, a few town and urban planners and municipal affiliates, policy makers, industry leaders and scholars from all over the world gathered under one roof as part of the Seedbeds of Transformation Conference to talk about our future earth-- world that concerns itself with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in Africa.
Group photo at the Seedbeds Conference. Photo: Mark West/Future Earth.
Eight artists "disrupted" the space with the help of Street Capture SA, an organisation founded by Luke Metelerkamp. Street Capture’s focus is on how public art can be one of the tools used to drive transformation as far as the 17 SDG's are concerned and how far we are from achieving Vision 2030 and Goal 2063. It firmly bases its principles on the recognition that artist have always had a role to play in the construction of social narratives, how we see the world as it is now and how we imagine the world in the future.
It was on this basis that a call was made to "street" or "public artists" to come and "immerse themselves in the space." The brief to the eight participating artist was short:
"Participate in the conference, listen, ask, and share, workshop creative ideas around public/urban spaces. Ideas that have the potential to be part of the solution when it comes to sustainable ways of 'collaborate' addressing the challenges faced by Africans in Africa. Explore possibilities around your art, the conference and the 17 SDGs based on what, who, what you see, interact and engage with in and during the conference."
I was one of the eight artists who took part in the Seedbeds Transformation Conference. I responded to the call for one simple reason: what Street Capture was proposing is something that I am familiar with, because I am an artist whose art is located in public spaces. Perhaps I have not seen myself as an artist for a long time because I work in communities and when I do, I do not work alone. I create the work with the community and when I leave the space, I leave it behind because it is not mine in that manner.
But it was extremely hard to sit in those heady, very important and information-packed sessions. The people who were most concerned with and affected by these numerous studies and findings--the people for whose benefit the conference was being held--were conspicuously absent. Their lives were being talked about, looked at with a telescope, discussed, examined and decided on. And all of this in their absence.
To my eternal gratitude, this was acknowledged. And discussed. And pondered over. And questioned. This was done through presentations by various speakers who were responding to the call of the conference. It was heartening to find industry leaders willing to acknowledge that transformation in Africa and anywhere else in the world can no longer happen without the direct and visible participation whose futures are the most vulnerable and at stake.
Of course one is always concerned about the cost of such conferences as well. The money spent on these events, as necessary as they are, can in fact feed many a villages in Africa and this address one of the most critical of the goals: hunger. And for me and the other seven artists, it would have meant space to work in, materials to work with, transport to travel, budget for marketing, and yes; food in our bellies. But alas, the world is not that simple. And not only that but perhaps taking into consideration that the main underlying theme of the conference as well as the goals to vision 2030 and 2063 is sustainability.
As we made our reflections during the conference, finding sustainable solutions for SDGs can only happen once Africans participate in the dialogue. Researchers located in the fields of science, technology, environmental studies, development and land studies declared that "we can longer duplicate efforts and that change will not happen” if the people living where the change needs to happen are merely spectators to it. That needs to happen is more engagement of some kind. Perhaps artists could offer that.
Amy Luers, the Executive Director of Future Earth, set the tone when she suggested "localising the SDGs so that they mean something.” Instead of perpetuating the globalisation of Africa, where everything starts at the top, perhaps SDGs should start from the ground up instead. Future Earth is "seeking seeds for collaborations in order to accelerate transformation,” she declared.
Distinguished Professor Lotz-Sisitka from Rhodes University reiterated this, as she talked about the need for data and science to be integrated in communities, and the problematic notion that a lot of African countries do not have resources like the National Research Foundation and that it is time to bring science to society if we are to move forward collaboratively. Another professor, from a New York University, urged everyone in the conference "to create a momentum for Africa,” and to explore the ways in which no-one is left behind.
It was all true of course. I wanted to jump and applaud but one does not do such things in such places. For one, that was not a performance space. Or was it?
It was on this basis that I presented my findings and my proposed public art project that addresses one or more of the 17 SDGs and how science can perhaps collaborate with art in this manner.
Samkela Stamper speaks at the Seedbeds Conference. Photo: Mark West/Future Earth.
It has been a project in the making since I taught myself to make mosaic art 12 years ago while I was working for the Mpumalanga Department of Education. I was a 23-year-old poet who was thrust into the stark realities of how atrocious power is as one sees it enacted in educational institutions, which can be a form for oppression for the marginalised. My lifetime project that I have shared with my community, the Thandeka Stamper Art Gallery, responds to this power.
My project speaks to 9 of the 17 SDGs. In regards to goal 15, climate change, I want to find out more about the dioxins found in clay and as part of our 5 year plan at the our Community Art Studios and Thandeka Stamper Art Gallery. In a year or so, we want to build our own energy saving kiln. The work I have been doing this year my grandmother's four bedroom house into an art gallery that serves as a space to invite creative workers in the 126 villages that make up Ingqushwa to be active participants in the economy.
Tensions were running high as the time to present concepts drew to a close at the conference. We were all nervous and this was after all, foreign territory. What we were tasked to do is to come up with a creative way to marry science and art, to be a partner willing to use their work to achieve the SDGs. I am equally humbled and ecstatic that it was unanimously decided by the panel that I would share my mosaic and tile making skills, using the handmade tiles to make art that is located in public spaces, in rural communities and townships, working with the community to do that.
Finding solutions with the community in this particular way and effectively addressing the 17 SDGs in Africa--and by an African woman--is what transformation is all about. I’m quite excited to share that on the 21 June 2018, doors to the Thandeka Stamper Art Gallery opened. It’s been an exhilarating, hard, amazing, beautiful, trying couple of weeks. We are grateful for the collaboration with Street Capture SA to make amazing things happen. We hope to build a greater desire for public art in rural areas, and build the participation of rural creative workers in the global economy.