Life at Artscape
Trip Start Oct 15, 2013
14Trip End Jan 09, 2014
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My first week of work with Artscape Resource Center has been an eye-opener. The Artscape Resource Center, one of the subsidiary organizations in Cape Town’s Artscape (basically the Kennedy Center in South Arica), serves to provide resource to developing arts organizations. Five of us, including me, are placed with Artscape, while most of our classmates are based with groups that work more directly with communities. However, we quickly learned that our work would not be with Artscape, but community partners who they had been mentoring. Through a program called Creative Capacities, Artscape was fostering the development of smaller up-and-coming arts organizations that worked on a much smaller scale than this mammoth company. My classmate Kim and I are working with a group called Tag Changers.
Our partner, Cathy, is the Office Manager and Co-Founder of Tag Changers. They recently launched a magazine that is intended to create a profit for this organization, which has undergone loads of financial hardship. They have accomplished a lot in four years, but they have a long way to go. To my Western business mind, it seemed completely haphazard to operate without true operational goals or objectives, which was my initial impression of the company. However, through some careful investigation (and basically pulling teeth), we were able to find the organization’s constitution and previous efforts at creating a presence within communities.
It’s been a frustrating but rewarding experience. I’ve learned all about business models, specifically within the arts; here, we are trying to create a real-life framework for this company that wants to provide so many solutions to an essential problem. They provide youth clubs for kids to go to after school, but it took us four days to arrive at that central mission. Our partner Cathy is undeniably sweet and earnest in her mission, but the culture in these parts does not demand the strictness that non-profit organizations in America must maintain. However, I’ve noticed a shift; our over-arching advisor, Ukhana, was educated at DeVos Institute for Arts Administration in Washington, DC (totally a dream of mine, so I was kind of starstruck at first). She is all about implementing Western business models, social media marketing and other things that have become hallmarks of American non-profit organizations.
In that same vein, working with Artscape themselves has been incredible! On our first day, we attended the weekly staff meeting, which was as entertaining as it was informative. The director of the Education and Audience Engagement unit operates just like I do: honesty is the best policy. However, she joked along with everyone and clearly knew exactly what she was talking about. They welcomed us into the culture immediately, soliciting our observations and laughing at our enthusiastic energy. I was proud to come through SHAWCO, who have arranged all of our placements.
Working with the Resource Center themselves has also been very rewarding. I’ve gotten to explore my graphic design side, something I’ve always been interested in but never pursued. I designed a calendar for the Student Liaisons Unit at Artscape, along with a poster for someone who came in to use the free internet provided by the Resource Center. Through another assignment to help one of the attendants with his iPod, I began a conversation with a former member of the Pan-African Congress, a group known for their ruthless approach against apartheid. He insisted to me that the history I learned was incorrect, something that very much piqued my interest. I’d heard this in many different forms, both as criticism of American education and of the Bantu Education Act, which insisted blacks and whites be educated separately. I’ve had quite a few conversations about where the truth lies in education; after all, don’t the winners record the history?
Another interesting experience at work was the death of one of our co-workers. We had never met him, but on our second day he was hit by a bus while leaving work. Our boss entered the Resource Center noticeably distracted but far from hysterical. She informed us that one of the staff members had died in an accident and the authorities were sending for his family. The other staff members in the office, while obviously upset, were equally composed. A few profanities later, and things were back to normal. My classmates and I were floored at their reactions.
It’s not that they were sympathetic or unfeeling! You could tell they were genuinely upset. However, there is a sense in this culture that death is merely a part of the everyday lifestyle. I believe that South Africans are accustom to the warfare that came out of apartheid – ANC bombings, SADF attacks, etc. Death is something to be remorseful for, but not something to freak out over. The next day, there was certainly a somber air in the office, but no one was very emotional; it was clear that people were used to this.
As per usual, the event ignited some connections in my mind. This man never knew when he left his home, his car and eventually Artscape that his dying day had arrived. Life is such a fleeting thing; it’s important to embrace the people in your lives and let them know how much you appreciate them. It helped me make a conscious effort to view my frustrations from a different angle: we are really the people that can help bring change to this organization. I’m not trying to have a missionary complex, but a different perspective can always help when developing a business plan. It even helped me see some personal struggles in a new light; someone in the house was really getting on my nerves, and I decided to be more positive about the situation. As I always preach, positivity is key to success. The hard part is consistently practicing that!
We also had a great talk with Riann, someone who works in the Student Liaison Unit at ArtsCape. After speaking about his career, we talked at length about the creative process and the potential of developing a piece together. I really love the open embracing of devised works and researching the creative process. Understanding how other people go about art gives me new ideas and a greater understanding of my own techniques.
Outside of work, we’ve been much less social than Northern Ireland. Last night, the professors took Megan and I to a burger place that ended up turning into a thoroughly entertaining drag show, which I’d never attended. We were told we looked like a "screwed up Adams family", which I guess is a complement! There was one night when we were able to celebrate our classmate Luke’s birthday. I had been told about Tagore’s a jazz club in a district called Observatory. We went there and saw almost exclusively Coloured people (don’t take that as racism, American friends. Here, Coloured is a very accepted term referring to anyone but blacks and whites, stemming from apartheid). There were a few whites and blacks, but the racial majority was clear. We also went to Obviouzly Armchair, an Afrikaaner (white) bar and Florentine’s, a predominantly black bar. It was exactly like the Catholic and Protestant pubs in Northern Ireland. Even after apartheid, people stick with the friends with whom they share a common struggle.
The whole human rights struggle fascinates me. What is art but the study and commentary of the human condition, as psychology is the study of the human mind? Peace, Reconciliation and the Arts, the title of our program, makes more sense as the days go on. Now, I see the three as intrinsically linked. It reminds me of a story I heard about an exchange student from Jordan. When asked why he was a Drama major, when there was such political turmoil and social issues in his country, he said “I wanted to do something that I knew would make a difference”. Although I wasn’t there, his words ring in my ears daily.
Tomorrow, winelands tour! We have a well-deserved break from the craziness that has been work. More to report then, I’m sure ;)