Stronger community built from cast-offs
HOWdoes a NIDA-trained stage designer go about contributing to a better world? For Genevieve Blanchett, it was an existential question, sparked by a spell in Europe at the start of the war in Kosovo. ‘‘I was seeing some of the greatest works of art and performances . . . but homelessness was rampant in London, there was war on the doorstep, there were refugees flooding into Europe,’’ she says.
This dichotomy prompted the Sydneysider to rethink her career. She returned to university and as an architecture student travelled to Johannesburg in 2008 with Global Studio, an interdisciplinary group that strives to better serve poor communities. In the sprawling, unemployment-ridden township of Diepsloot, she worked on an urban renewal program sponsored by the Johannesburg Development Agency. Her appetite thus whetted, she returned last year to work with fellow Australian and Global Studio alumnus Jennifer van den Bussche, who had stayed on as a volunteer in Diepsloot after the studio wound up.
‘‘After a couple of years’ study, I’d felt really disconnected from the reason I got into it,’’ Blanchett explains. ‘‘I just wanted to get back and help out.’’
The pair established Sticky Situations, an organisation that takes the reins from Global Studio and facilitates community-based projects in areas of urban disadvantage. When they were asked to develop a public artwork as part of the ongoing JDA program, Blanchett felt the tug of her theatrical roots, so instead of creating a traditional artwork, she decided to stage a performance, using as a backdrop the regenerated streetscape of Diepsloot.
The script was adapted from a conflicted love letter written to Diepsloot by a local student; the performers were drawn from the Muzomuhle Primary School and the Diepsloot Arts and Culture Network and used animal imagery to tell their story; the production was staged along a thoroughfare running from the township’s main taxi rank, past the school and down to the new bridge across the polluted Diepsloot River.
‘‘We wanted to engage the community as much as possible, and to encourage pedestrian traffic along this linkage,’’ Blanchett says. ‘‘We chose the school, whose fence runs the length of the walkway, and used it as a backdrop.’’
Blanchett mentored the arts community as they set about preparing for the performance; it proved to be an important lesson, she says, in the triumph of imagination over resources.
‘‘We chopped up discarded cardboard rolls and put them on the rabbit costume. The owl was cut from old signs that are used as tarps, and we used plastic bottle caps as the cats’ tails.’’
The result was a flamboyant, carnivalstyle performance that enlivened a oncedegraded area and drew together a community fractured by poverty, HIV/AIDS and violence. Blanchett is now doing a master’s in urban design and development and is again bound for Diepsloot, where the Water, Amenities and Sanitation Services Upgrading Program is already planning the next phase of the project.
‘‘(They were ) excited and inspired by what we did with the costumes; they could see that rubbish could be powerful and beautiful. They are now working with the arts group because there’s a strong community desire to build a recycling depot into the artwork itself.’’ stickysituations.org theglobalstudios.com
Genevieve Blanchett works with a student in the township of Diepsloot