Contrasting Colors in the Mother City

Contrasting Colors in the Mother City

July 2, 2019 Off By Ksenia Saifi

“Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different precisely in order to realize our need of one another.”

– Desmond Tutu


On a chilly winter evening everyone was sat around at a large wooden table at the Zebra Crossing Hostel in the heart of Cape Town. The heads of our instant family, Lisa and Rob, introduced a new practice – every evening over dinner we would all share the day’s highlights and lessons learnt. We began by mentioning the paintings we had seen that day in the Zeitz MOCCA museum, by artists from all over the African continent, with their different backgrounds, deep concerns and fascinating ideas. And the day’s lesson; people are very hard to understand, but are still amazing in their own way. This project has gathered people of various origins, interests and hopes. We are all extremely different: some are quiet but wild inside, others are loud and visible but have a kind soul, and others are amongst some of the strongest people I have ever met. All these individuals make up a unique and well-functioning organism of the IEP.

The first days of Cape Town have been emotionally packed. Exploring an unfamiliar place with people I only met at our seminars in Prague a few weeks ago, and am now having a shared experience with, has been very special. It might sound like in could end up an absolute disaster or a very explosive experiment, as the fact that many of the group members were younger than me, and that we would be on a new, far away continent together frankly made me a bit nervous. Not only do we come from nine different countries and attend various fields of study, but our approach to travelling also varies as we were quick to find out. Few people are ready-made backpackers; some are able to travel around with just their lunch boxes while others aren’t able to trust random bed sheets. So, just imagine this lot gathering together and getting a plane to this mysterious South African city.

Before departing on the trip, I knew that Cape Town was a multicultural city with all varieties of extremes, but so far, it has gone very well. The only thing that concerned me was that I would have to live in hostels, which I had never done before. YouTube videos about backpackers and how loud and ignorant they can be, frightening stories from experienced travelers, about bunk beds and bed bugs, and even the potential for race problems in South Africa were all stuck in my head. But the expectations I had and the pictures I had drawn in my mind appeared to be different from reality (thank God for that). The only novelty and controversial thing for me was a shared bathroom.  All the rest is surprisingly fine; the place is beautiful, the beds are clean and comfy, and people are generally chill.  And, the washrooms are not that scary!

Cape Town is not just vibrant city with amazing ocean views and colorful open people – it is a city of contrasts, the most notable being, who has money and who doesn’t. I have seen luxury cars driving through rich areas, but the houses are surrounded by guards, high tech alarm systems and barbered wire. While at the same time in the many densely populated townships, people live off very little, trying to keep their families safe amongst the trigger-happy gangs. So not everything is perfect in the Mother City.  

While writing on these first days of our project I realized that the most remarkable and emotional day in Cape Town so far was the arts day – a day spent roaming around the stunning Zeitz MOCCA museum. Also, this day gave me a lot of food for thought in regards to the people and their reasons for being the way they are.

At 9:30 am on Friday we headed out to meet Jon (an artist from Zimbabwe) at the Company Gardens in the city center for a tour. Jon was so welcoming and helpful, so we all felt very comfortable in the places he took us to. He never used the phrase “I don’t know” so we felt we could ask him anything and get an honest answer, even for non-art related questions.

It made a lot of sense to start with the rich history of the Iziko Slave Lodge, because it gave us a foundational understanding of what was happening in the country for centuries. Later we saw the same issues of race and identity displayed and incorporated into the art pieces of the Zeitz MOCAA Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum is located in a touristy area of the V&A Waterfront with food and clothes markets, shopping malls and expensive yachts. The Museum itself is a spectacle of a building, massive and concrete, which once served as a grain silo, with a series huge angular glass domes at its roof.  

We had seen the darkness of slavery, the brightness of scarce water and the sharpness of inequality. All of these issues are touched upon in the exhibitions of the Zeitz MOCAA. A bright and provocative painting by Jeremiah Quarshie, an artist from Ghana, caught my attention. It was of his aunt Dedei, who sits calmly in the center of the painting, with bright yellow jerry cans sat behind her as a sign of the desperate scarcity of water and the need for its protection in African countries.

Artist Owanto of Gabonese origin showed the contemporary struggle of women from different countries of Africa and the Middle East facing with FGM (female genital mutilation) in his work “One Thousand Voices.” Think of a room where you hear different women’s voices, strong enough to tell you their sad stories with visitors frozen with tears on their lashes and cheeks. A mixture of recorded interviews and dark blue walls with yellow flowers covering intimate parts of the female bodies on the photographs will stay in my head forever. The message of artists in this place is so strong and deeply rooted in their background as it is almost as though you can actually hear them. All of the fear, pain, and despair in these pictures side by side with hope and inspiration. But the strongest conveyed message is about inspired people who decided to shape their stories, ideas and fears into art pieces so others would hear their truth. People who are trying to move on from the history of segregation and want the rest of the world to be the same.

For me this day was so full of emotions. There was sympathy to those who had suffered the most, disappointment in those who ruled the country before, and hope for those who will come after. The only way to finish it was with the relief and freshness brought by a heavy storm that blew through as we sat in one of the glass domes sharing our thoughts. All shades of grey covered the orange sunset at the Waterfront. The huge surreal building of Zeitz MOCCA Museum became even bigger and stronger resembling a castle attempting to hide all its treasures from the rain. Like in all good stories, the storm actually brought us closer and gave me stronger awareness that I am at the right place surrounded by good people. Finally, I understood that the members of our group were on the same page – and it is a good to have this trust when you are planning to stay with someone for an entire month. Hopefully, we will deepen our relations as we move around Cape Town’s hostels experiencing the ups and downs together.