The Harare Academy of Inspiration: a new category of public space

On a Saturday afternoon at Harare Square in Khayelitsha, a hip-hop track resonates from a narrow two-storey building. Inside, a girl raps to a two-man audience. A young man offloads a car with ingredients for the meal later, unpacking them in the kitchen across a small courtyard. I am waiting for Brenda Skelenga to arrive. She’s been delayed transporting supplies from Somerset West. While I wait I learn the group is practising for later. They are members of Soundz of the South, a hip-hop and poetry collective who addresses issues such as gender-based violence and the influences of neoliberalism, and form part of the diverse contingent of visiting acts to the venue in November 2015.

It’s 1:30 p.m. and the jazz band – according to the programme – was supposed to start half an hour ago. There are no band members or instruments in sight. I seem to be the only one confused. People socialise on benches outside in the sun, the hip-hop music continues, and Brenda finally arrives with shopping bags and small children in tow.

She is rushed and apologetic but by her entrance it is evident she is in control. We go upstairs to a small room and she shuts the door, buffering the din below. I suspect this privilege may last for half an hour at a push, opening a brief window for me to ask her about the space beneath us: The Harare Academy of Inspiration.

The Academy is a 30-day arts festival, instigated by Brenda and two other collaborators, Valeria Geselev and Naz Ping. It’s hosted at Moholo Livehouse, a restaurant Brenda opened about a year ago in an effort to create a place of social engagement in the neighbourhood that differed from the usual tavern offerings.

Inspired by informal gatherings she attended at Valeria’s home in the more central neighbourhood of Observatory, Brenda knew it was possible to initiate the same kind of knowledge sharing and creative support in Khayelitsha. She began a series of conversations over food and drinks in a tent in her backyard but flooding became a problem. An opportunity arose to move to a more permanent venue in Harare Square, where Moholo Livehouse was born. The restaurant hosted a few events and exhibitions but lack of funding prevented a consistent offering. A call for proposals for the African Centre for CitiesPower of Place project provided a temporary solution. Together with Naz and Valeria, she successfully proposed the concept of The Harare Academy of Inspiration, a month-long open “university,” whose daily offerings would be shaped by visiting inspiration officers.

It is a week in and the programme is packed with offerings from philosophy lectures to land art workshops, and yoga sessions to sex education, provided by artists, intellectuals and activists from all around Cape Town. Brenda reports that every day has seen the Academy teeming with visitors, many of them youth from the surrounding areas. It’s the kind of audience they were hoping to attract: young people whose circumstances have left them idle in the working week. She relates how a young man told her how much he had enjoyed himself simply because of the conversations he was able to engage in with people he didn’t know. Unlike in the taverns there was no pressure for him to drink.

Naz Ping comes up the stairs and joins the conversation. She sees the Academy as providing an alternate form of learning, which shares and shapes knowledge from the community, and whose access is not dictated by exorbitant university fees. Brenda, too, describes the space as “a thriving ecosystem,” — “our own little economy,” independent from the established and well-resourced educational institutions closer to Cape Town’s centre and far away from Khayelitsha’s realities.

In fact, Naz explains, it’s the unique nature of Khayelitsha that makes the Academy so effective. The project is site specific in that most of the informal, organic happenings that have emerged over the last week could never have occurred in other more formalised areas of Cape Town. Red tape governs event organising in the city centre, which limits the potential for inclusivity and spontaneity. Part of Naz’s learning from this project has come from letting go of control — of the programme, its schedule, and the people involved.

“People walk in here and give a different flavour to what we had planned in our heads. It takes a different shape. Some spaces don’t allow for that,” says Brenda. “If we feel like putting a band outside, that’s what we’ll do. The poets downstairs — if they feel like taking their act to the carpark they’ll get an audience. That’s the power of this place.”

Naz describes the events of the past week as activating a creative energy that has always been there. “We’re just pushing play and standing back and letting it take shape,” she says.

In this pocket of Khayelitsha, the month-long Academy is challenging the dominant logic that has governed Cape Town’s geography. The locus of creativity does not have to be dictated by proximity to the city centre or its historic beauty. As Naz explains, the Academy has set out to claim the space around it, where access to inspiration and education does not revolve around means of mobility or a monetary exchange. It is also challenging the attention that has been directed to more conventional forms of creative arts, such as big-budget festivals or institutions like the Artscape theatre in the city centre. The greatest hurdle ahead is how to sustain the venture; their difficulty in attracting permanent funding reflects the prevalent thinking.

“City officials keep telling us how small we are. Not in these exact terms, but this is what they imply,” says Brenda.

“And who is an institution like Artscape catering to?” Naz adds. “It’s a tiny minority of the country.”

Both Naz and Brenda feel figures in authority underestimate the impact small-scale initiatives such as the Academy could have. “All we’re saying is let’s level the playing fields. Don’t give all the money to mainstream initiatives like the orchestras and theatres — it makes no sense. But we will get to that later,” Brenda concludes with a smile. “For now, we’re having fun.”

The organisers are sought from below and I go downstairs. By now, Saturday’s inspiration officers have arrived: acclaimed jazz band Amandla Freedom Ensemble is performing to a thickening crowd of children, youth and adults, taking turns on their solos and playing up to the audience’s resultant praise. It’s 3 p.m. on a Saturday at Moholo Livehouse and the space is taking shape powerfully.

Megan Tennant was formerly an editorial intern with urbanafrica.net.

Photo: Amanda Freedom Ensemble. Naz Ping

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