Streetology – Presence, Observation and Action (in that order)

by Karim-Yassin Goessinger

Streetology – Presence, Observation and Action (in that order)

Africa’s cities have been connected by networks of trade and knowledge exchange for centuries. In the 21st century some of these ancient meeting places have become the fastest growing cities in the world. By the end of this century Dar es Salaam, Kinshasa, Cairo, Johannesburg and Lagos are expected to grow into mega-cities with well over 80 million inhabitants. With this demographic growth and concurrent urban concentration arise pressing urban challenges related to mobility, human and food security, public health, and affordable housing, to name a few. Urbanization in Africa is changing the ways we experience its cities: from the sweet smells of the shisha cafes in the streets of downtown Cairo to the smell of the large toxic e-waste sites of the Agbogbloshie in Ghana; from the sound of a Kora played by a Malinese storyteller to the ticking of the keyboards in the hackerspaces of Kenya’s Silicon Savannah, and the electronic beats of nightlife in Lagos. While these places are all conceived of as postcolonial cities, many aspects of colonial relationships have not ended in them. Over and over again, demolition, removal, and upgrading processes in the so-called postcolonial era are replicating colonial tactics. 

In the fall of 2019 we came together as educators, scholar-activists, researchers and curators, filmmakers, rappers, street artists, philosophers, organizers, choreographers and chief listeners from nine African countries for a first African Ecoversities gathering. One of the notions that struck a chord among us at the gathering was brought up by Johannesburg-based multidisciplinary artist Vuyisa “Breeze” Yoko. Growing up in a township in Cape Town Breeze had developed a particular awareness while spending time in the streets. He came to call this awareness, broken down into ‘presence, observation and action’ (in that order as he suggested) – Streetology. There was something in Breeze’s storytelling about his urban experiences that resonated with the attendees who had spent time in Lagos, Casablanca, Dakar, Kinshasa, Nairobi, Cairo, Kampala and Johannesburg. Breeze’s Streetology was invigorating the experiences lived in African cities. It was celebrating movements, fashion statements, choreographies, sounds, subversions, attempts at make-shifting and shape-shifting. Breeze was reminding us to look at daily struggle, hectic hustle and precarious lives with fresh eyes that would allow us to see street smartness, or the idea of ‘seeing what might happen’ as a quintessential tactic (Simone, 2005) performed by African city-dwellers. He was drawing our attention away from the predominant framing of African cities as places wounded by war, famine, disease, poverty or political turmoil (Myers, 2011).

Breeze’s work as a multidisciplinary visual artist is devoted to celebrating local street art culture, creating opportunities within the local (South Africa’s) street art community, and fostering cross-cultural connections between local and international artists through events and residencies he curates and partakes in. Championing different forms of literacy Breeze searches for new methods to ‘read the city’. In his work he develops a visual vocabulary that reveals an inherent awkwardness to our movement through African cities – a humor that echoes our own vulnerabilities. Breeze considers movement a metaphor for the ever-seeking city-dweller who experiences continuous and constant change. In a show he presented at in 2015 entitled Towards Intersections: Negotiating Subjects, Objects and Contexts, he presented a video piece that looked at people’s livelihoods in a neighborhood of Lagos’ mainland called Makoko (for more on Makoko see here). The video piece put the spectator in a position that he called ‘culture vulture’ and was intended to question our reading of urban space and its inhabitants. With the piece, Breeze reminds us of the risk of ‘prying on people’s lives’ (like vultures) and the importance of respect and consent when reading city lives. In his street art Breeze makes references to South African literary epics like Indaba my Children to ‘reclaim ourselves and our ancientness’ (Yoko, 2015). He paints walls to bring life to dead urban fabric. In an interview he gave on SABC News last year he recalls how claiming graffiti and street art as a form of expression and pedagogical tool has been a tough battle in South Africa. It took years for its production and learning process to become recognized and encouraged in daylight – and to cease being a nocturnal, illicit practice. 

The Cape Town Central-based film collective Azania Rising’s expresses Breeze’s notion of Streetology in their focus on harnessing visual storytelling. The collective has been offering free filmmaking classes every winter to people in the township of Mitchells Plain on the Cape Flats. In collaboration with Blaq Pearl Foundation the collective hosts workshops that generate local oral histories, creative writing and filmmaking. Adrian van Wyk of the Azania Rising collective came to this work secretly listening to Hip Hop music while growing up. The ‘sonic packaging and delivery of knowledge on the social conditions’ within his community and of social struggle, notably for people of color, enticed him as a young boy. At university in Stellenbosch he came across ‘Hip Hop academia’. He describes the latter as a portal of study within the social sciences that has allowed him to explore “the intersectional composition of culture”(Wyk, 2019). In bringing together the rhythmic and the poetic through rap music Adrian spoke of a mode of inquiry that engaged with entanglements and solidarities across socio-spatial divides. He introduced us to an element of Hip Hop culture known as the cypher which refers to a mode of collective performance in rap music. Over the years, the collective has engaged, documented and celebrated Hip Hop culture in urban South Africa and increasingly other parts of Africa. Working at the intersection of oral history, creative writing and filmmaking, the collective guided in its efforts by radical feminist practice and decolonial thinking. 

Meanwhile in North Africa, an autonomous college in Cairo, Egypt called CILAS (Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences) has invited students to engage with the liberal arts in a neighborhood of Fatimid (Historic) Cairo since 2013. The term liberal arts has served as an umbrella to the Humanities and Social Sciences. The tradition of the liberal arts is dedicated to encouraging self-reflexivity, philosophical and poetic inquiry, and thinking critically about pasts in relation to present ills and possibilities. With this in mind we have been intent on contextualising the study of the liberal arts. In other words, we have taken steps to deliberately situate CILAS on the African continent, along the Nile, looking towards its North African and West Asian neighbours, and being in dialogue with initiatives and communities that re-imagine higher education across the global south. CILAS has served as a repository of the revolutionary momentum of 2011. It has preserved and extended the historical moment that has sparked hopes, shed light and brought to the surface burning questions. Together we set out to challenge Eurocentric knowledge production. Over the years we have come to draw on primary sources in Arabic, translated many of the texts previously unavailable in Arabic, hosted talks, workshops and film screenings in an effort to de-center modern/colonial narratives and imagine decolonial ways of being, thinking and learning together in solidarity. Cautious not to fall into the trap of romanticizing indigenous knowledge systems and of essentialising legacies or days of glory, we have been revising CILAS’ curriculum in an ongoing effort to incorporate students’ matters of concern into the courses offered.  Inspired by Cairo’s street cafés and the often heated discussions around coffee or tea that take place at them, Discussion-Based Learning has guided both morning birds and night owls in their collective inquiries. Students are invited to pre- and post-discussions based on texts, films, plays, ethnographies, archival material, artifacts, site visits, guest lectures, and when (eventually) possible, supported to travel and study abroad. Initially nestled in the souq of al-Ghuria, CILAS moved to the top of a small hill facing the 13th century Sultan Hassan mosque in the neighbourhood of Darb Al Labbana in 2016. In Alexandria CILAS found a home in a caravanserai in the neighborhood of al-Manshia near the old Jewish quarter in front of the Mediterranean sea. The proposition to bring the liberal arts into conversation with its context meant raising questions pertaining to the aliveness, vibrancy and complexity of mega-cities like Cairo and Alexandria, its neighborhoods, its local histories and multi-layered geographies.

Cairo, along with Lagos, Kinshasa and Nairobi, is said to be particularly congested and noisy – qualities that make it both an unbearable and irresistible place to live in. Everyday life in Cairo is full of surprises that make you come alive. Every step you take will keep you on your toes. You are bound to side-step obstacles, jump over potholes, dodge vehicles and tune in and out of a cacophony of sounds while navigating an open sea. These very contractions are fuelled by the contradictions that make Cairo so enriching to learn with. Meanwhile, the desert surrounding Cairo has given way to an ever-expanding urban sprawl that has seen the creation and isolation of satellite cities as well as the beautification and containment of informal areas. Much of Greater Cairo’s urban development is decided upon without any public consultation or information leaving its inhabitants speculating, frustrated and resigned. Urbanization in other parts of the continent plays out similarly secretly with land being grabbed, traded and sold off at below market prices; real estate, water fronts and golf courses being developed with complete disregard to the infrastructure supporting it; and with demolition, forced removal and ‘slum upgrading’ dominating the dynamics of urban development. Africa’s cities are wounded places indeed and yet they remain sites of contestation allowing for subtle forms of resistance, literacy and re-existence to emerge and manifest. The works of the Azania Rising collective, Breeze’s street art and CILAS uphold a pedagogy of attunement – one that encourages listening, sensing, observing and reflecting carefully. The infrastructural leakages and bureaucratic entanglements of the so-called post-colonial city makes the quintessential tactic of ‘seeing what might happen’ not only a skill but a mode of inquiry and ultimately a question of pedagogy. As educators guiding learning processes beyond walls, we encourage a reading of the city that is cognizant of site specific struggles intersecting with the sounds and images produced by the post-colonial city. Much of the work done by the different participants of the First African Ecoversities gathering concentrates on remembering and documenting voices, connecting to places and pasts, and to finding ways to navigate Africa’s cities, its streets (to come), back alleys, informal areas, multi-layered urban fabrics, water fronts and high risers. Learning to read the city is crucial to the practice of Streetology in a rapidly-urbanizing Africa.

 

1 Vuyisa “Breeze” Yoko, Cape Town-born, Johannesburg-based filmmaker and graffiti artist at First Africa Ecoversities gathering in Jinja, Uganda, September 2019

 

References

 

Myers, G. (2011). African Cities – Alternative Visions of Urban Theory and Practice. Zed Books, Introduction.

 

Parnell, S. and Oldfield, S. (2014). The Routledge Handbook on Cities of the Global South. Introduction and Chapter 1.

 

Simone, A. (2005). A. Urban Africa: Changing Contours of Survival in the City. Zed Books, pp. 235–60. 

Yoko, B. and Evans, M. (2015). Spaces and Intersections in African art. Retrieved January 19th 2020 from https://mg.co.za/article/2015-05-21-00-breeze-yoko-mary-evans-on-spaces-and-intersections-in-african-art/

 

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