Amid bricks, weed-choked building lots, and grimy walls, wild animals hang out. I turned a corner, and the wildlife stared at me. They're not the real deal, of course, but beautiful, masterful animal portraits painted by street artists who are spreading a message about wildlife in danger. I was staring back at them, getting up close and personal on a street art tour.
Woodstock - from industry to artistry
East, away from the busy streets of downtown Cape Town is an edgy suburb wedged between the sea and Table Mountain, an industrial sprawl, once gritty territory for gang warfare. Today, it's gentrifying: cool urban shops have opened, an old biscuit mill is now a Saturday must-visit destination for its foodie market and its shops, and fashionable apartments are being built for cash-rich youngsters.
I met Juma Mkwela, a Malawi-born Zimbabwean chef-turned-engineer at the Woodstock Stock Exchange, a design hub, for coffee in stylish cafe Superette before we hit the streets. Juma's backstory is as fascinating as the street art we were about to see. Like many of his countrymen, Juma headed south from Zimbabwe to escape political, social, and economic problems.
He headed straight to the Cape Town township of Khayelitsha in 2006 where he worked as an engineer but, due to pressures on his back, he began working as a street artist crafting figures from wire. In 2008, after a wave of xenophobic attacks in Khayelitsha, Juma couldn't return home and went to live in a camp for five months. There he volunteered to be a camp leader which led him towards leadership training with LUCCA Leadership. It was through this scheme he met other artists and decided to partner on projects and tours: Juma's Tours were born.
Juma told me why he began working in Woodstock:
"Ten years ago there was a lot of drugs and crime in Woodstock. This used to be an industrial centre and there used to be a lot of artists and so we thought we would paint murals in the area to inspire and tell stories. We wanted to paint, to educate, inspire, and for the area to look beautiful and tell stories. Today there are more than 100 murals in this area."
Animal power and political freedoms
Keen to start exploring some of these creative works we set off on foot from the Exchange. One of the first pieces Juma showed me was of a giant portrait of a wolf shaded in a patchwork of colours. In "Raised by Wolves", morphed into the wolf's flank is the face of a human. Painted by famous South African artist Nardstar*. Juma explained:
"She is trying to say that humans and animals are the same, and the multiple colours used represent the diversity of culture in South Africa with our 11 languages."
Nearby was the work of the famous Johannesburg artist Faith47. On a flattened corner wedge of a grey building Faith47 had been commissioned by the South African government to raise awareness of the Freedom Charter of South Africa - a 1955 charter documenting the principles of the South African Congress Alliance. From on high, two wispy plant roots plunged down the wall to reveal that their roots, below ground, are interconnected. Contemplating it, Juma said:
"We are black and white but we all share the same roots and we are living together, entwined."
It seems some locals disagree, though, as the plants' roots have been blackened by the letters YGB - the tag of the "Young Gifted Boys" gang - who have vandalised the work, Juma explained.
South African artist Black Koki's rainbow circle is another piece of art that has, perhaps, taken on a different interpretation due to an intervention not made by the artist. A perfect bright colourful circle striped in rainbow colours shines brightly in the sun against a yellowing wall.
"Black is trying to represent the rainbow nation - the idea introduced by Desmond Tutu and used by Mandela to mean that South Africa is a country for everyone."
The circular piece, however, is now fenced in, and viewed through barbed wire for its own protection.
Animals under threat
UK artist Louis Masai returned our tour to the theme of animals, a theme that he's taken to walls around the world. We eyeballed a portrait of a vulnerable looking Blue Crane, the national bird of South Africa, with the words - painted at knee height - "Blue Crane Vulnerably Declining since 1980".
Three years ago, more than 200 blue cranes died in a deliberate poisoning incident, a scandal which shocked South Africa. Close by is the beautiful portrait of a sorrowful looking giraffe featuring the words "Rothschild Giraffe Under 2500 left worldwide". The Rothschild Giraffe is endangered in its homelands of Uganda and Kenya due to habitat loss and poaching.
The theme of wild animals and their plight is strong throughout Woodstock's tumbledown streets. Ukrainian artist duo Interesni Kazki have painted an image of a man, sitting on a rock, embedded inside a zebra body while the man holds the zebra's head - like a mask - in his hands. Again Juma commented:
"It's a warning. If you kill an animal your relative will be entombed inside."
Heading back to one of Woodstock's main avenues we passed barefooted kids asking Juma for money for sweets, and we stopped to shoot the breeze with ex-gangsters. I got the feeling that gentrification hasn't reached all parts of Woodstock.
Turning into a vacant building lot, a huge mural reared up on a wall featuring a woman, and an elephant swimming under water by local artist John.
"Not everyone in South Africa has seen wildlife, and this woman is shocked to see a wild elephant swimming underwater especially as she herself can't swim."
For our last stop we pull in at "art it is", a gallery signposted by three giant yellow cones jutting out into the street at 90 degrees. Owner Jandre tells me that his original gallery is in Johannesburg but he opened this Woodstock gallery space to coincide with the opening of the Zeitz MOCAA museum on the V&A Waterfront in September 2017.
"MOCAA is good for South African artists. Everyone is benefitting. They approached me to buy a whole collection of one artist."
Jandre said with pride.
"art it is" is a paintbrush's throw from the Woodstock Exchange where I first met Juma. In 2012 the Woodstock Exchange, once an industrial complex, was sold, Juma said. Rents went up so artists moved to studios in the side streets including one aptly named Side Street Studios. Not everyone in the area agrees with gentrification Juma told me and this protest in paint is visible right next to art it is' gallery door. The outsized image of a boy with a backpack stepping out of the area decorates a wall of Jandre's gallery. Juma explained:
"Representing the young kids moving out."
Whether it's wildlife in danger, politics, or the gentrification of Cape Town's suburbs, the work of these street artists is bringing important talking topics to the table. On my next visit to Cape Town, I told Juma I'd be keen to take his Township Art Tour where more endangered animals and politics writ large in murals reside.