Written by Meleney Berry-Kriel //
In a country with as many well-known, well-publicised challenges as South Africa, it is a challenge in itself to choose the principal of them all. Personally, although I am passionate about preventing and responding to sexual violence, about turning the tide of poverty through education, and about correcting the injustices of colonialism and apartheid, I have identified one challenge as the greatest: inequality.
Whether inequality in South Africa is seen as a result or a cause, it is the one thing that places the most pressure on our society, the one thing that places our citizenry at risk of turning in hatred toward each other, and the one thing we need to address most urgently in order the achieve a breakthrough with all the other challenges.
In science and nature, inequality causes movement. There is a drive to make equal that which is unequal by forces that pull what is too much away from what is too little. This very movement is needed and visible in South Africa. Some of it is achieved by negative force, such as crime, some by wilful, positive action, such as social engineering and altruism. The key is the promotion of the one without the demise of the other. This is a balance that is needed both ways. One cannot promote wealth with the demise of the poor, as it has been, but neither can one promote the poor with the demise of wealth. This has been and remains a challenge. Think not only ‘poor people’, or ‘wealthy people’ – think poverty of any resource, compared to the wealth thereof. Think, the Arts.
I am a social activist, community builder and NPO management professional, skills and priorities that come into play in my job as CEO of the Viva Foundation of South Africa. However, I am firstly an artist, a musician, a writer and a hobby painter. My son, Rheece, is the true artist. His distinctive “Moonjava” detail-art is known and sought-after. The Viva Township Art Project, developed organically after one particularly difficult – and unsuccessful – attempt at obtaining funds for our care Orphan and Vulnerable Children from a Government Department. In desperation, I decided to withdraw our application and told my son: “Let’s go and paint at Viva!”
Our centre is in the midst of an informal settlement, or ‘slum’, with people living in make-shift shelters of tin and wood. There is no sanitation, no electricity and household refuse is dumped on street corners, or designated areas, where it collects for weeks before the municipality collects it. It is a dismal, grey place where children have to grow up and desperately poor people, have to eke out a living.
We started painting murals at our centre and immediately community members began asking us to likewise paint murals on their tin homes. These are the humble beginnings of our project. From there, we began to dream and conceptualize. We realized how a grass-roots art project can contribute toward transformation, which is our organization’s main aim.
It is possible and necessary to promote the Arts where there is a poverty of artistic expression and access, by drawing upon the wealth and generosity of Art as an expressive and transformational force. This has become the philosophy behind the Viva Township Art Project and the Viva Living Art Galleries: to bring the arts into vulnerable, under-privileged communities, to give young people access to art through mentorship and stimulation, to visually transform dismally poor settlements and to ultimately stimulate the economy of a community by attracting visitors. The acts of creating a living art gallery in an informal settlement by transforming tin-shack homes into works of art and of promoting different ‘township’ art-forms through workshops and festivals are acts of restoring equilibrium.
We invited artists to join us in creating murals and artists practicing a variety of disciplines, responded. Fine artists, cartoonist, graffiti- and street art crews all contributed to create the world’s first Living Art Gallery. It is living, because every image of an art piece, is different, as it captures the life of the home, the street and the township. In the foreground a woman is seen washing clothes in a bucket, children are seen playing in the street and men are seen relaxing with a beer. In the background, the changing seasons, smoke plumes from fires and an ever-changing sky, adds to the surprising beauty of creativity in poverty.
In the communities where the Viva Township Art project is introduced, the first impression is the visual transformation and the impact of color on the eye and on the atmosphere in the settlement. The Township Art Festival draws together people from different socio-economic spheres, local youths are mentored by well-known visiting artists and visitors to the community are seen walking on sandy streets, between the shacks in search of hidden artistic gems. While doing so, they meet people and discover the beauty of contact.
Art is coming into streets. Even fine-art is pouring from the galleries and stately theatres onto sidewalks, the walls of buildings, abandoned power stations, subways, concrete motorway-mazes, and homes of people who are desperately reaching up from squalor. Poverty is a pit. One cannot free people from a pit, by throwing money into it. One brings a ladder – a tool of escape – and climbs into the pit, showing those at the bottom how to climb out. It is Inequality’s action to throw money down. That way, one does not have to truly interact or come into touch-vicinity of the poor. A drive-by corporate action – respond to a proposal, make a donation, request a set of photos and a financial report – without ever coming into physical contact with the poverty. The Arts won’t allow that. The Arts demand contact.
Meleney Berry Kriel is a founder member and CEO of the Viva Foundation of South Africa, a registered Non Profit and Public Benefit Organisation with the vision to transform informal settlements [slums] and other high priority poverty areas into stable and safe neighbourhoods, providing education, employment, business- and recreational opportunities for all members of these communities. We developed 4 focus areas, namely Children, [education, orphan care, youth development and early learning programmes], Poverty Alleviation [Skills- and Enterprise Development], the Arts [Visual Arts, Music, Drama, Dance & Poetry] and Sexual Violence prevention & response. She is also an artist, musician and writer and the Art focus developed organically as her son, Rheece, an artist, and she began transforming walls with murals, in the settlement where their first centre was established. The community responded very well to the murals and asked them to come and transform their shacks into works of art as well. They invited artists and began conducting the Viva Township Art Festivals and started to create the world’s first “Living Art Gallery”.