'Voices in Transit' at Cape Town Station
by Sue Williamson
'Voices in Transit' was a bold attempt by curator Roger van Wyk and the Cape Town Festival to bring some form of artistic intervention and festival spirit to the somewhat dilapidated and culturally barren main hall of the Cape Town Central Station. On the afternoon of Saturday March 23, when the sunlight was filtering down through the high coloured glass panels of the 1950s edifice, and commuters and passersby alike stopped dashing through the space and sat themselves down on chairs to listen to music, or wandered around happily looking at the art projects on offer, they seemed to have succeeded well.
As the title suggests, the project, which took the form of dramatic productions, musical offerings, an in-space radio programme, a selection of videos shown on monitors housed in glass display cases, and work by visual artists, addressed questions of migration and displacement, voices on their way to or coming from somewhere else, exiles, refugees, migrants.
The size of the station and the competing attractions of advertising billboards made commanding the space tricky, but four long banners of plastic bubblewrap painted with images of moving figures by Arlene Amaler-Raviv held their own. Playing the role of resident portraitist, German artist Manfred Zylla, who many will remember for his powerful large-scale drawings from the 1980s on the role of the military in the upholding of apartheid, stood at his easel. His charcoal drawings of whoever wished to sit for him, accompanied by a brief statement of where the sitter came from, were placed one by one on a panelled frieze around the station, slowly building up a visual record of commuters from all over the continent. Sitters could take home photographs of their portraits.
In a series of those old pegboard-backed display cases where faded photos of the Drakensberg and other tourist attractions have long given way to nothing at all, Tracey Derrick's fine black and white photographs of refugees from the rest of Africa trying to make a new home life in Cape Town, a project undertaken for the United Nations Refugee Commission some years ago, gave another view of the overall theme.
The problem with setting up the video section of the programme was how to prevent the monitors from going home on the train with the commuters. The solution of placing them inside display cases meant that the sound could not be heard, and viewers had to be content with the visual. The visual was more than enough in one case - a remarkable piece called Inertia (1999) by Masahi Iwasaki and Tadasu Takamine had the camera placed in front of a young woman strapped to the top of a speeding express train, endlessly trying to prevent her skirt from blowing over her head. This case attracted such a large and interested crowd that the Metrorail people spoiled the fun and discontinued showing the video.
The gentle Bombay the Hard Way (2000) by Karma Clarke-Davis showed a woman in pink sari perched on the back of a bicycle in a day-to-night ride through that city. This section was curated by Canadian Jason St-Laurent, who spent time in Cape Town as intern to festival director Zayd Minty two years ago, and who was also responsible for presenting a project by Luis Jacob of Canada. Commuters bending down slightly to read a printed text on strips of paper crossing the pink and green tiled floor of the station could read, in English, Xhosa or Afrikaans, "Across this line to some place better/Across this line from somewhere special".
But perhaps the art project which attracted most attention on that Saturday afternoon was Art at Work - Pip Cozens and Janis Somerville with their blue hand project. Dressed in orange workers uniforms, and accompanied by a three-metre inflatable blue hand, the pair painted the hands of a large army of children and adults blue, as a sign of solidarity and tolerance, and invited them to add their own personal message of peace to a blown-up "earth ball".
The "catalogue" took the form of a small blue passport size book, containing graphics, writing and poetry around the general themes of exile and displacement. Just the right size for slipping into one's pocket to read on the train.
All in all, 'Voices in Transit' was in the best traditions of public art, bringing interest and stimulation to a wildly diverse group of people who were going about their daily business, or perhaps feeling lost in a new place, and stopping them in their tracks.
The project was sponsored by the National Arts Council, Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Agency for Development, the City of Cape Town, Metrorail, Intersite Property Management Services, the Government of the Netherlands and the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.