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The artists taking on gentrification in South Africa

In Cape Town, the legacy of Apartheid makes gentrification's amnesia doubly painful. We go on the streets with the artists fighting against the forgetting

On the hilly roads of the neighbourhoods at the foot of the iconic Table Mountain, just outside the Central Business District, are official green direction signboards. One arrow points in the direction of ‘Woodstock’, the other ‘District Six’. Up until a few months ago, ‘Zonnebloem’ was written where District Six is now. But somebody changed it, in the middle of the night, when no one was looking. It sounds like a small thing, but it's a creative middle finger to the local government and to developers. The artists behind the defacing are telling us one thing: the history of District Six will not be forcefully removed, as its people were.

District Six was once a diverse and colourful neighbourhood of coloured, Indian, and some Portuguese inhabitants, until 1968, when the Apartheid government declared it a whites only neighbourhood. Sixty thousand people were kicked out by police, their houses were razed to the ground, and they were pushed out to what is now the Cape Flats, much of which is ridden with poverty and gangsterism.

The area was renamed Zonnebloem. Today much of the land remains empty, the slopes covered in long dry grass overlooking the harbour. The government has promised, since the end of apartheid in 1994, to hand the land back to its previous owners. But that’s not happened, and the borders are shrinking inwards as ‘design hubs’ are set up on the edges: galleries, urban design and branding companies. The area is being split up into sections with new and sexier names, like the East City and the Fringe. People eat this stuff up: German students in ‘wir sprechen Deutsch’ (we speak German) signed guesthouses, young American voluntourists with blonde braids, and creatives looking for a ‘more alternative’ space.

Cape Town is a pretty city. It is also a city using art and design as a means of bullshitting its way through its social and racial inequality. This year, Cape Town is playing host to the World Design Capital, which sounds important and fancy. Few locals understand what it actually does, but get that it cost the local government a load of cash to earn the trademark. The reinvigorated ‘design’ buzzword is being used to pander to the will of major property developers and trendy businesses moving into Woodstock and District Six – traditonally low income black and coloured neighbourhoods with heavy histories.

We've seen it before: Businesses come in, rents and rates go up, communities move out, wealthy, mostly white people, move in and ‘clean up’ the neighbourhood. Woodstock, with its Victorian brooky-laced houses with clear views of the mountain, is being compared to neighbourhoods like Brooklyn in New York, Hackney in London and Neukolln in Berlin, for the exclusive gentrification happening there for the same reasons as the others – cheap commercial and residential spaces, in good proximity and with good transport links to the CBD and the element of dodginess that is imperative for an artistic landscape. Gentrification is not new. The difference in Cape Town though, is that it is frighteningly reminiscent of the forced removals during apartheid.

The Burning Museum, a collective of five young Capetonian artists, are refusing to allow the faces of the community and its previous generations to be forgotten. So much so that they’re physically pasting them up on walls and bridges around Woodstock. The group made of Justin Davy, Jarrett Erasmus, Tazneem Wentzel, Grant Jurius and Scott Williams, sought out the archives from the 1950s to 1970s of photographs taken by the Van Kalker Photographic Studio, which stood on the main road for decades and captured hundreds of smiling families in front of forest or island paradise wallpapers. Along with these photographs, they also pasted a copy of the Natives Land Act of 1913, the apartheid law that enabled blacks to only own property in certain areas, totalling only 10 per cent of the country’s land.

It is very difficult for the artists to track down all the people in the photographs because they did not have names attached, and many have already had to move out of the neighbourhood. “People’s stories were gentrified out of history books,” says Tazneem. “These are histories that don’t get told, that are unseen, invisible. But they are omnipresent.” In this way, for the Burning Museum, the wheatpastes have become a public gallery, reminding passers-by of their own friends and family. However, there is also the added hope that the images will be recognised by the people in the photographs, on the chance that they pass them by on Woodstock Main road.

The collective was formed on the basis of the common feeling of marginalisation from the art world of central Cape Town, which, they say, still bears the scars of forced removals. The members themselves have histories of displacement and removals in their families, who were pushed out to the peripheries of Cape Town. As yet, they too, have not gotten into any trouble with the city or with property owners, and they don't know why. Perhaps because removing the images would be an admission that the gentrification is deliberate. “Burn [Burning Museum] is leaving a residue – traces,” says Justin. “It's our way of saying ’kyk hier, ons was ook hier‘, or ‘look, we were here too’. And we are still here. And we are burning right now.”

Twenty five-year-old Haroon Gunn-Salie is the artist who found a hole in the police patrol shifts of the area and climbed up the District Six signboards late at night to paste over the names. He does not hide that he is behind it, and yet there have been no legal ramifications. Perhaps, he says, it’s because “it is a thorn in the City’s side”, a city that “seems persistent to push a neoliberal capitalist agenda of renaming the area the East City when really it is part of District Six”. Haroon studied at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, where he saw that in a city where the art world is still run by a white elite class, there was little support for black artists. “The past is not over, things are not right yet, apartheid and colonialism are not dead. As a young person I can continue to strive to make sure that there is less forgetting and more memory of the past going forward.”

Haroon and the Burning Museum are two players in a growing movement of mostly black artists using public spaces to enforce remembrance, gently while still creating discomfort, on a city whose streets and spaces are being wiped clean of memory, and convenient sections of history are picked by developers and government for their sexiness. “What defines what we can do and what we can't do?” asks Justin. “In this structure that we live in, being the city, we are limited, and we are thinking about burning those ideas. It’s trailblazing in a sense. Blazing. Burning. Just blaze, you know?”