Culture in Cape Town

Apartheid is a heavy word. Afrikaans for “apartness,” it was an institutionalized racial segregation in South Africa that discriminated against nonwhites. In place until 1994, the affects can still be felt in the country today. Especially in Cape Town.

The stark contrast between the poor black townships and the rich white neighborhoods, like Clifton, with home prices in the millions (USD) is impossible to ignore and heartbreaking to see.

There are some incredible museums that have made it their duty to share the horrors of what happened in order to prevent the past from being forgotten.

Robben Island was used to isolate political prisoners from the late 1600s to the early 1990s. Three former inmates have gone on to become President of South Africa, including Kgalema Motlanthe, Jacob Zuma, and, of course, Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela.

Now known as the Robben Island Museum, former inmates give tours of the island and share their stories with visiting tourists.

The District Six Museum is a memorial to the 60,000 inhabitants who were forced out of the neighborhood due to apartheid in the 1970s. The floor of the museum is covered with a map of the district and includes handwritten notes from former inhabitants, indicating where they used to live.

The Zeitz MOCAA is a different kind of museum. It is a celebration. A celebration of the diversity and accomplishments that have come from the African continent. The Zeitz is the largest museum of contemporary African art in the world.

It was the Zeitz that we found ourselves visiting while in Cape Town. We happened to go on a rainy, Monday morning – the museum is open all seven days of the week. And we proceeded to spend the next three hours inside.

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Visually captivating from the start, it is located inside a former grain silo. The space was reimagined and reworked to look like a grain hull and alongside the back wall is a larger than life tapestry of aluminium and copper by Ghanaian artist, El Anatsui.

The museum does an incredible job of striking a necessary balance in tone that ranges from hilarious to beautiful to somber.

Some of my favorite pieces were made by South African artist Athi-Patra Ruga. The diversity in his work made it a joy to look at both The Night of the Long Knives series, as well as his statue, Proposed Model for Tseko Simon Nkoli Memorial.

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The pieces were unexpected and fun and a sharp contrast with other, heavier, pieces like South African artist, Zanele Muholi‘s, collection of paintings. Her work “aims to establish an archive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) individuals…at the height of hate crimes in SA and beyond.”

The photograph below, entitled Bester I, Mayotte, serves to honor her mother’s womanhood and servitude as a domestic worker.

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Similarly, Gabon artist, Owanto‘s work “often addresses sensitive and somewhat taboo issues, concerning cultural and religious practices which adversely affect individuals on personal as well as social levels.”

Including her piece La Jeune Fille à la Fleur, connected to a current exhibit created to call attention to and encourage discourse on the practice of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). Statistics report that 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone FGM/C and the photographs are accompanied by a collection of audio testimonies from around the world by FGM/C survivors.

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Another large exhibit, Five Bhobh, is comprised of 29 Zimbabwean artists commenting on the heightened socio-political events in Zimbabwe’s recent history and questioning “Where are we going? What comes next? How do we get there?”

One of the artists, Duncan Wylie, “creates multi-layered paintings that convey a sense of chaos, urgency, and resilience,” like in Self Construct below. Drawing attention to the juxtaposition of self-preservation and self-empowerment against the backdrop of displacement, inequality, and economic crisis.

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And a final artist, reminiscent of Marvel with Black Panther, South African Loyiso Mkize creolizes popular icons from the stage and screen, like in Exodus: The Heroic Age. His company, Loyiso Mkize Art (Pty) Ltd publishes KWEZI, South Africa’s first superhero comic book series.

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Other incredible artists at the Zeitz include, but aren’t limited to: William Kentridge, Julien Sinzogan, Marlene Steyn, Jeremiah Quarshie, and Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA), from South Africa, Benin, South Africa, Ghana, and England/Nigeria, respectively.

Making your way to the top of this building rewards you with views overlooking the V&A Waterfront, as well as these geometric windows, which are works of art in their own right.

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But the Zeitz MOCAA wasn’t our only stop for culture in Cape Town. We also spent an afternoon (i.e. 30 minutes) in the neighborhood of Bo-Kaap. While I would undoubtedly urge anyone and everyone to spend some time at the Zeitz MOCAA, we had mixed feelings about Bo-Kaap.

The residents of Bo-Kaap are mostly descended from slaves who were brought to the Cape by the Dutch during the 1700s. They came from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the rest of Africa.

Now known for its brightly colored homes, they are attributed to an expression of freedom. Originally, all the houses were painted white. Most of the original occupants were Muslim, which is why South Africa’s first mosque was built in this neighborhood.

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Nowadays, however, this area is seen in a more positive, more appealing light and some of the inhabitants are having a harder time affording rent as the areas nearby go through gentrification.

The neighborhood has also seen an upswing in tourists (i.e. us) and there’s this conflicting feeling of wanting to give the area protection and “heritage” status, as well as simply wanting to be left in peace.

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It’s easy to see why so many tourists are flocking to the area; the homes are beautiful in their varied colors and they make great backdrops for fun photos. However, we saw numerous tourists forget that this is a working neighborhood. I thought that was obvious from all of the parked cars! But we literally saw tourists walk up peoples’ steps, pose on their front porches, and even watched as one couple “accidentally” walked into someone’s home!

After a few minutes, the stop felt more invasive than fun. We read great reviews about the free walking tour that takes place there, so maybe if you find yourself in Bo-Kaap you can join the tour and keep a more respectful distance from others’ homes!

One of the last pieces of art we saw in Cape Town was purely by happenstance. I had heard about a street artist from the area – Falko One – and desperately wanted to find some of his work. But, I didn’t know where to look!

He paints all around Cape Town, but most of his projects aren’t labeled and I wasn’t sure where to find one. Luckily, on our drive to Boulder’s Beach for our penguin day, I caught a glimpse of some elephants. A bit of shouting later (at Chandler, our driver), and a rather unsafe turn around, we found ourselves in front of Falko One’s street art.

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His artwork is known to “transform and reinvigorate the villages, towns and cities where he paints them.” Since a lot of them include elephants, they certainly bring a smile to my face.

They often start a conversation with those who find them. The one we found was rather poignant.

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You can see more of his street art here.

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