Troubling the image of an African city: Interview with Rike Sitas

A lot of how we choose to live our lives is beyond the ordered and rational, says Rike Sitas, researcher at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. The same can be said for how we live in and understand urban environments. Sitas believes art – both as practice and as a tool of research – offers ways to access and understand the importance of creative and affective processes in cities, beyond formal politics and calculated urban planning. She is one of the co-founders of dala, a creative collective that has applied and experimented with artistic understandings of South African cities over the last seven years.

But the use of art as a tool to explore urban matters presents its own political dilemmas and limitations. spoke to Sitas about the role of art in cities, and how the new ACC project Public Art and the Power of Place is attempting to grapple with these issues in Cape Town.

Megan Tennant: What is valuable about using art as a way to understand cities?

Rike Sitas: Art can be used as another way of knowing the city. What is interesting about art is that it is not bound by rationality or having to make sense; it can suspend disbelief. Art is not going to solve massive issues like inequality, but it might open up other ways of talking about inequality, or create discussion in a much less threatening way than formal political processes. You are able to able to mess with futures and mess with ideas of what other realities could be without being bound by a particular political mandate.

MT: What are the challenges and limits of this approach?

RS: There is a real push for public art to fulfil the state mandate of social cohesion. We need social cohesion, but how we get to social cohesion is a much more difficult question. A lot of the time social cohesion is understood as everybody getting along and finding consensus. I think there is an assumption that art will create spaces that achieve this, but forgets that actually public spaces in South Africa are hugely contested and hugely volatile. Likewise, there are some issues that are completely irreconcilable. But if we address how to live with these complexities, then we’re getting closer to social cohesion.

The same can be said for transformation. Transformation should not be about transition of power, but rather a renegotiation of power itself. For example, through dala, we never believe that our work is going to radically transform society because unless we have a complete spatial redistribution of land, we’re not going to have that kind of transformation. But art might give other stories that can add to a greater body or a bigger argument for why things like spatial segregation need to be completely dismantled. It is how we use these projects to hopefully demonstrate new ways of thinking, and new ways of doing art and engaging with the city.

MT: How are you hoping to achieve new ways of thinking and engaging with the city through the ACC’s project, Public Art and the Power of Place?

RS: Firstly, the project is responding to the reality that well-resourced public art in South Africa still generally tends to be the work of white men. In Cape Town, the resources and access to networks are still located in the CBD [Central Business District]. So the people who can get access to project money and to representations in and of the city are the affluent in the CBD, or who have come through art institutions like Michaelis [the school of fine art at the University of Cape Town], or who have some kind of traction within the contemporary art world.

That’s why the call is for township-based artists. There are hundreds of small art community groups that exist in Cape Town involving dance, poetry, hip hop, graffiti or sculpture. Most of these collectives are completely ignored.

Secondly, South African cities and African cities more generally tend to be represented by either tourist images or squalor. Africans are either seen as full of innovative hope or despair. These are unhelpful polarities that represent our cities. Because Cape Town especially is such a well-known tourist city, it has a very strong destination-based identity which is not the reality for the majority of Capetonians in any stretch of the imagination.

In this way, the project is also thinking about the power of place and how place outside of the city bowl is incredibly important for the identity of Cape Town. I think in order to have transformation, a lot of troubling and transgression is needed. That’s what we’re hoping this project will do – trouble that image and trouble the kind of dominant narrative of what makes up a city, especially an African city.


More information about Public Art and the Power of Place is available via the ACC website.

Megan Tennant is an editorial intern with UrbanAfrica.Net and has a background in English, film studies and urban geography. She is currently practising as an urban researcher, with recent involvement in projects focusing on township revitalisation and mother and child urban health. 

Image via Warrenski.


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