Stronger community built from cast-offs

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - CATHER­INE MAR­SHALL

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

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