By Isabelle Anne Abraham
“We are free, but there’s an absence of our presence – what happened to that?” asked Doung Anwar Jahangeer in his talk, ‘CityWalk: Art, Architecture and Social Justice’.
Co-hosted by Visual and Performing Arts of Africa, the talk was held on Tuesday 24 April, where Jahangeer gave a presentation including video screenings in the Fine Art Department.
Jahangeer is an architect, an artist, and a performer, interested in issues of space and place. He was born in Mauritius and has been living in South Africa since 1992. After receiving his Bachelor of Architecture at UKZN in Durban, he went on a three-year journey across three continents.
In 2008 he co-founded the NPO dala (which means to ‘make/create’ in isiZulu), an organisation which uses art and architecture as a means for social change. Jahangeer’s work is multi-media and includes live performances, film/video, sculpture, painting, installation and architecture.
Some of dala’s initiatives are: Streetlight, Livelihoods, Shoot Me, Creative City, and Critical Practice. However, there is another one in particular that is the spine of the organisation, and inspires all the other initiatives – CityWalk.
The CityWalk Initiative is the “use of contemporary art as a vehicle to raise curiosity, questions, and even sometimes to misbehave”.
CityWalk is one of dala’s oldest initiatives which began in 2001. Jahangeer came up with the idea for CityWalk in 2000, as a way of directly observing the flux and mutability of his adopted city.
It began with a disappointment in the lack of architectural experimentation at university. Jahangeer was disillusioned with the practice and fell into a long depression. He was at the point where he was self-destructive and wanted to get hurt.
Then one day out of desperation, he went out for a walk and took his camera with him. Exploring the streets led him to a different realisation of South Africa. Before coming to the country, people had warned him about the high crime rates.
Yet now as he walked through ‘dangerous’ areas, no one snatched his camera; in fact people were open and talked to him. When he came back the next day, they remembered his name. Instead of concentrating on his route, he looked people in the eyes – and through this he discovered himself and others.
“I was engaging in a process of being humanised,” Jahangeer said. “There is a disparity of the one world that I live in, and this other world that is just there.”
After a year of this, he could feel the release of tension in his shoulders; he was more relaxed. Soon others wanted to join him on his walks, and the idea of CityWalk was born. This walk occurs out of a desire to let go, and reveals an abundance of beauty in what Jahangeer was previously told was ugliness.
The initiative examines how people negotiate themselves in spaces. The walkers immerse themselves in micro-elements: the crack in a wall, the point where the pavement meets the street – Jahangeer says these are elements of dissent.
He notes how nature emerges in an urban space: a grass shoot appearing in the fissure of a road. “This destroys our need to control,” he says.
One can also discover the humanity in people’s faces. The architect points out that people don’t do that these days, “we are afraid to smile at strangers”.
Walking within the rhythm, there’s an unapparent harmony that you can only see with your heart and experience with your senses, claims Jahangeer.
“There’s an element of walking en masse that defines a movement,” he says, and adds that this causes a power shift in thinking and creates a unity and energy.
“This frightens city managers and urban planners – they know there is an intelligence there that cannot be controlled, that they cannot conceive.”
CityWalk has since evolved; the pavement – what was previously a space for walking – has become a space for healing, to be free, to conduct livelihoods. The project now includes walks in Johannesburg, London, Belo Horizonte, Addis Ababa, Malmo, Marseilles, Amsterdam and Copenhagen.
Before making a building, one has to understand the space first. Through CityWalk, Jahangeer has found a way to destabilise the rigidity of architecture, a way to explore ‘architecture without walls’.
He concludes that there is no way of telling how far this initiative will go, but in the meantime the walk continues.
During the 2012 National Arts Festival, Jahangeer will take his audience on a CityWalk that explores Grahamstown, a 200-year-old place with a complex history. The walk occurs on the 4th, 5th, and 6th of July.