In late September, I headed to South Africa to facilitate a community mural project at an orphanage in Johannesburg. My wife and frequent collaborator, CJ, joined me as the project manager and co-facilitator. This was the last of a series of four projects in 2016 for the Adding Color to Lives youth arts initiative in four countries, a partnership with Park Inn hotels in which hotel employees participate with local youth in challenging situations in order to initiate mentorships that will continue once the mural projects are complete. This concept is one that underscores all my work and that of the organization that I co-director, Artolution; that community-based public art is a tool that can build powerful positive connections between youth and their community and begin the process of healing the affects of trauma, conflict and social exclusion.
On the day of the first workshop, CJ and I were excited to meet the children and teens from the 5Cees orphanage who were to work with us for the next week. They arrived a bit shy and unsure of what to expect, but soon began to open up about their ideas for our mural design. We were joined by a group of student volunteers from the Sophie Kanza Foundation, who supported the participants as they went through the process of turning their ideas and sketches into a giant work of public art on the outside wall of their orphanage. Over the course of the week, the kids and local volunteers painted with us in a collaborative process as layer upon layer of the mural was created. We played music, laughed, and got to know one another as the artwork came to life. Each day, we began with team-building games and activities in which participants pondered critical questions regarding their community, their lives and their future. These explorations informed each section of our mural.
In one area, a giant woman is surrounded by clouds in which each child wrote their dreams for the future and their “superpowers;” or their special talents. As Johannesburg is a multi-ethnic and diverse city with immigrants from across the continent, we chose to paint a mosaic of cultural symbols and artwork in the afro of the main character, a statement of pan-African unity in the face of the xenophobia that has plagued South Africa in recent years. Her voice flows in yellows, oranges and violet tones, filled with portraits that participants made of people who support and inspire them. As the kids at 5Cees do not live with their families, we asked who fills those roles in their lives; perhaps a teacher, a staff member at the orphanage or friends. They were excited to paint homages to these special people and think of creative ways to represent them. They also created their future homes lives in the mural as a kind of public vision board. In the final section, youth answered the question “if you were an animal, what would you be and why?” They chose animals that represented characteristics that they identified with. Not only did they use brushes, but had the opportunity to make their own stencils of these animals and apply them with spray paint.
We greatly enjoyed the spirit of the 5Cees kids, an incredibly warm and talented group who taught us a great deal about their lives and culture. While they all spoke English, their native language is Zulu, and they found it hilarious to try to get us to pronounce words with the infamous clicking sounds. It was also a difficult place, one in which kids had lost their loved ones or whose families were unable to care for them. Over the course of the week, a mother came in to try to give away her baby, and another came with her 7-year old daughter, only to be turned away because the orphanage was at capacity. We became close with teens like Lindo, who had a passion for drawing but had no supplies, so we left him a sketch pad and pencils, and he’s been sending us drawings via WhatsApp ever since. An 18-year old girl named Margaret, who had been there since she was small, was a mother figure for smaller kids at the center and was an incredible singer. One of our most hard-working young artists, Napo, was interviewed for a feature about the project for South African news channel ANN7.
At the closing ceremony, we were sad to say goodbye to these amazing kids, but everyone was proud of what we had accomplished: a giant, colorful mural on the outside of the 5Cees center filled with hundreds of expressions of the kids working with Park Inn employees, volunteers from Sophie Kanza and local community residents of all ages. Park Inn staff barbecued in the South African tradition of braai and blasted music for everyone to dance to, with the event quickly turning into a festive block party, with the whole community coming out to celebrate. Many of us gave speeches and many of the kids performed with dances and songs. Thanks to everyone who made this project possible: the incredible 5Cees staff members, Khule and the Park Inn team, the Sophie Kanza volunteers, the whole community of Berea, my wife CJ and, of course, the amazing kids of 5Cees!