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Depicting Fairyland - The Art of District Six

Posted on September 4, 2012
As much as photographs, myths, stories, poems, artefacts and letters contribute to the identity and meaning of District Six, so do artworks. Located on the edge of Cape Town's CBD, District Six has in fact been represented by a host of artists, both before and after it was demolished by apartheid's bulldozers over a period of about 14 years from 1968 onwards. Undoubtedly, the most famous of the District Six painters is Gerard Sekoto, whose 'Yellow Houses, District Six' (painted sometime between 1942 and 1945, when he lived in the area) was sold at Bonhams auction house in London for a staggering R6.7 m in March 2011. Other relatively well-known artists who have made work about District Six - and these are only those who come to mind immediately - are Tyrone Appollis, Willie Bester, Bruce Franck, Peggy Delport, John Dronsfield, Roderick Sauls, Lionel Davis, Sandra McGregor, Erik Laubscher, Gregoire Boonzaier and Kenneth Baker.

Home to a close-knit multicultural community of mainly working class people for over a century since 1867, District Six has been an area of considerable fascination for artists, mostly, but certainly not exclusively, because of its decrepitude and perceived quaintness- something like the enduring interest of artists in ruins. Today the legacy of these artists is manly to be found in popular, archetypal depictions of the area, which focus more on the look of the place, rather than on its people. In this respect, most depictions of District Six show views with houses that cling to a street dotted with a idle, or semi-active, people, as can be seen in Bruce Francks's To Hanover Street off Pedersen Street, District Six (1965), for example, or in the work of Kenneth Baker.

Unlike Franck's pen and wash drawing, Baker's work is sometimes much more than the usual rendering of what District Six looked like. While his untitled and undated painting illustrated here shows the usual landscape of run-down buildings with a few people in the street, it is no meek, dispassionate and detached representation of appearance. Baker's gift is that he is able to strip objects of their apparent ordinariness, transforming them into expressions of his own emotional make-up. In his painting, houses are not just houses as he embalms them in crisis, or so it seems to me. It is as if the buildings are made of ice-cream, about to melt into the rubble of history. As such, they are projections of impending doom, harbingers of what awaits them after 1966, when District Six was declared white, which set the stage for its destruction.

While most depictions of District Six show a street, houses and a sprinkling of people, the street itself, however, with its throngs of people and activity, and which pulsated with life, is generally uncelebrated in art. Unlike in literature on District Six, many visual representations simply suck the once thriving, throbbing streets dry of their very life-blood - people and their doings. A case in point here is Hassiem Adam's Queen Street, District Six (1974), which reads as an image of a ghost town, the presence of people marked only by the shells of existence - shabby but evocative houses in an integrated street pattern.

Adams' image is a far cry from District Six's vibrant street life, especially in Hanover Street when it was in full swing. Some sense of District Six's animated street life, and also its celebratory zeal, is represented in Roderick Sauls' Black and White Faces (1994), made well after the area was raised to the ground. Black and White Faces is a representation of the New Year's carnival, so much the expression of District Six. It is a crowded image, without a fixed point of focus, and with a random dispersal of bobbing, costumed figures that weave their way around the buildings of downtown Cape Town and District Six itself. In both its busyness and its seemingly chaotic formal organisation, the work conveys something of the fanfare and hubbub of District Six's working class culture.

Saul's Black and White Faces is a representation of District Six as a place where zest for life is celebrated to the full. District Six's exuberance and joyous spirit can also be discerned in another linocut - Lionel Davis' Vanaand gat die Poppe Dans (undated), which takes the form of an invitation to a dance. In keeping with the culture of District Six, the work is infused with a colourful, caustic brand of humour that says much about the parlance and wit of residents. Combining text and image, it shows a number of dancing couples and also people refining and preparing themselves for their night of revelry - a woman ironing her clothes, and a man peering at a bottle of peroxide beside him while having his hair cut by a barber. 'Stryk jou hare! Dye dit rooi! Maak jou mooi!' (Comb your hair! Dye it red! Make yourself look nice!) blurts the text; and also 'Jy moet suffer vir jou beauty' (You must suffer for your beauty). Such vigorous humour, was so much the flavour and texture of District Six, and intrinsic to its patois, now scattered across the Cape Flats.

Important about the works of Sauls and Davis is that, as representations of joy and conviviality, they present something of a counter-narrative to the apartheid government's view of the area - that it was overcrowded, deficient in housing, crime-infested and rife with immoral activity, particularly drinking, gambling and prostitution. These were in fact the very reasons provided by the apartheid government for the destruction of District Six. Ironically, the official view of the area coincides somewhat with the way District Six is represented in insider literary texts, such as those by Alex La Guma and Richard Rive.1 But, of course, District Six was much more than a squalid, dangerous and cramped environment, and the perception that it was beset by social malaise, such as alcoholism. If you add other features of District Six, particularly that it was a place with a powerful sense of community belonging, that it was a sort of 'helpmekaar' (help each other) society, and that it was possessed of great effervescence and joie de vivre (as can be gleaned from the works by Sauls and Davis), then you have a more complete picture of the its many identities.

That many people took to the bottle in District Six is in fact confirmed by some visual accounts of the area, such as Sekoto's Shebeen, District Six (1944), which shows a group of figures having a drink. Then there is also an untitled and undated work by Baker, which also deals with the subject of the poor taking to drink in order to drown their sorrows. Baker's work depicts three figures huddled and bonded in misfortune. They strike me as being unable to extricate themselves from the vicious cycle of poverty, despair, degradation and violence that so bedevils working class life. Through alcohol, they find solace and temporary relief from the toil of their lives. Embalmed in sorrow, their faces etched with hopelessness and resignation, they are painted with great empathy, and with a sense for the tragic. Here Baker stands in their shoes, rendering them from inside, as if their grief were really his.

Both Sauls and Davis were born and lived in District Six. And although Baker was born in Claremont, Cape Town, he had an intimate association with 'Die Ses', as the area was known. As such, their works are insider accounts of the area, a striking feature of which is that it is sometimes not District Six as a landscape of decrepit buildings with some people that is the subject of their work. What we have instead in some examples of their work are people, represented upfront and in close focus, and as social actors engaged with the world through some activity or the other, as can be seen in Sauls' Black and White Faces, Davis' Vanaand gat die Poppe Dans, and Baker's untitled work dealing with the alcohol syndrome in District Six.

People are also the subject in Cassiem D'Arcy's The Devil's Revenge (1988), a work which contrasts sharply with the glorious exuberance of District Six, as represented by Sauls and Davis. The title of the painting is taken from an unpublished book by D'Arcy, another District Six insider artist. In his book, written in 1995, D'Arcy tells the story of Van Hunks, a Dutch farmer who, on a ledge in the then Winberg (now Devil's Peak), beats the Devil in a contest to see who could smoke the most pipes of tobacco. Peeved, the Devil swears revenge, pledging to sow havoc on the area below the mountain, now known as District Six. For six generations, the Devil plotted his evil until eventually he steered the minds of white parliamentarians to pass the Group Areas Act in 1950, which allowed for the destruction of District Six. When the Devil's gleeful laughter finally abated, District Six was no more after some 60,000 thousand residents were forcibly evicted.

D'Arcy's painting shows the wanton destruction of District Six, watched over by the Devil, who is faintly represented in the clouds over Table Mountain. In the centre of the work, a front-end loader scooping residents to their dispersal on the Cape Flats can be seen, with a driver wearing a white mask, literally concealing his identity from those whose fate he literally wields in his hands. Surrounding the front-end loader are despairing, anguished residents who, according to D'Arcy's story, are cast in the Devil's spell. Also to be seen are some of the buildings that weren't destroyed in the mayhem over those 14 years of destruction, such as St Mark's Anglican Church and Upper Ashley Street Preparatory School, which I attended so many years ago now. To the right is a desperate, pleading figure of a minstrel, who gestures in vain for the destruction to stop. Below the minstrel is, according to D'Arcy, the stoic figure of one of the last residents of District Six - Mrs Asa Saban. Tortured by her fate, and with arms folded, she carries a look that is a combination of anger, defiance, sadness, despair and accusation. To the left of her is a naked figure with his back turned towards the viewer and hand raised in an ambivalent gesture - half a plea for the destruction to stop and half a wave goodbye to District Six, so cherished by all who lived there.

An image of tragedy and great sadness, The Devil's Revenge is the only artwork known to me that deals with the actual destruction of District Six, making it unique among visual representations of the area. As told by D'Arcy in his book, when residents departed from District Six, they spat on the ground as they left, cursing the land to lie fallow. The curse worked: until former residents began returning to the area in 2004 after a land claims process, much of District Six remained unoccupied for some 20 years after the last residents were evicted. It is the vacant, desolate District Six landscape that is represented in Mayibuye District Six (1990), a large work by artists from the Community Arts Project - Lucy Alexander, Zakhele Dabata, Mpumelelo Dingelo, Arona Dison, Nigel Julius and Natasha Rightford. On display at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape, it shows District Six as a carcass, a landscape now stripped bare of life. In the sky, former residents are rendered as ghosts, hovering and wailing - dissatisfied, tortured souls for whom there is no respite from the trauma of their forced eviction from an area that once carried a piece of graffiti reading 'You are now in Fairyland'.

Today 'Fairyland' is a primary symbol of apartheid's forced removals across South Africa, from South End in Port Elizabeth to Sophiatown in Johannesburg, and a heritage site of considerable significance to thousands of Capetonians. When I look at a painting representing District Six, memories of my school days in the area come flooding back, no matter the quality of the work - hawkers selling their wares, the bioscopes, the barber shops, the fish market, the Crescent restaurant in Hanover Street, playing dominoes in the street, people milling about on street corners, the pin-stripped 'hangbroek' (a pants that hung low off the waist) worn by gangsters, the flower sellers, the Christmas bands, the minstrels, or 'coons', as they were called, the sound of music with a ghoema beat. That old saying still rings with a powerful truth: 'You can take the people out of District Six, but you can't take District Six out of the people.' That you can't take District Six out of the people is exactly why some artists continued to make works about District Six in the period after its destruction, paying homage to an area considered sacred by former residents, and which poet James Matthews described as a place where 'gladiators provide[d] circus and flowers flourished in filth.'2

Notes

1. See, for example, Alex la Guma, A Walk in the Night (London: Heinemann, 1967) and Richard Rive, Buckingham Palace: District Six (Cape Town: David Philip, 1986).

2. From Matthews' poem, 'District Six'. Quoted in Deborah M Hart, 'Political Manipulation of Urban Space: The Razing of District Six, Cape Town.' In Shamiel Jeppie and Crain Soudien (eds), The Struggle for District Six, Cape Town: Buchu Books, 1990: 117

Emile Maurice is an Archival Platform Correspondent based in Cape Town. His article is a re-worked version of an essay which he wrote for the exhibition catalogue, 'District Six: Image and Representation', published in 1995 by the South African National Gallery and the District Six Museum.


Emile Maurice is an Archival Platform Correspondent based in Cape Town