An Engaged Practice: a conversation with Ayesha Price

POSTED ON: November 12, 2019 IN Ayesha Price, Conversations, Greer Valley, On Artists

by Greer Valley

I first met Ayesha Price in 2007 when I volunteered for an art project in Cape Town called PEACEJAM where she was a facilitator. I remember how in awe I was of the way she skillfully switched between media and commanded the attention of a room full of young artists who would travel from across the city to attend the weekly art workshops held at the District Six Museum. The joy of making, a pedagogical impulse and a commitment to social justice are central to Price’s practice. The choice of meeting place for this interview – the District Six Museum’s café speaks to her rootedness in the District Six community, the part of Cape Town she calls home, and her ongoing commitment to marking its significance in the city’s history – a history that is often at risk of erasure or misrepresentation through the city’s political and market-driven projects. [1]

The following questions were emailed to Ayesha after our initial conversation at the District Six museum.

Greer Valley: I have known you for some time now, we met initially through the PEACEJAM project at the Disctrict Six Homecoming centre around 2007. This project was located at the intersections between social justice and artistic practice and it is through this frame that I have come to be familiar with your work as an artist and cultural worker. How do you describe your practice?

Ayesha Price: My practice focuses on perception and representation and is largely located within collaborative community based processes. I have always been very interested in how our sensory processes determine our realities and how our realities can shift by honing our levels of awareness and changing our perspectives. How do the experiences of individuals located around the same event differ and when are they the same? Creative pursuits conduit manifestations of these individual realities across time and space. Working collaboratively allows for a very rich and socially contributive process: maintaining an open ended multi-authored vision, as we really have to alter our perceptions and make space for the realities of others. I am very interested in the role art can play in society, as a tool for learning and living, rather than as a commodity to be bought and sold. So I work on projects that allow for collaborative art making processes that addresses social injustices or reform.

GV: You previously worked for Iziko museums as an education officer and as the principal of the District Six Children’s Art Centre where coincidentally I had been a student in my primary school years between 1993 and 1995! How important is education and pedagogy to your practice?

AP: I don’t separate art, education and life. Life is about education, about growth. Learning cannot fall outside of life. Our education systems are not serving our humanity or benefiting the lives of the majority in their current forms. Learning is static and standardised and play isn’t recognized as research. There is no time to imagine and wonder. Schoolwork is disparate from children’s realities. Art is all of our first language, yet children are not sensitised to the barrage of images they consume or are confronted with daily. Education should be about making sense of the world and finding your place in it, adjusting as necessary. Our pedagogy should align with a vision for humanity, our vision for a shared existence. But first, we need safe spaces in which we feel free to imagine.

GV: The Peninsula Maternity Hospital of District Six is an institution that many families in Cape Town are familiar with. It is where many members of my own family started their lives. It is a place entangled in the public memory of the city, decades after many people were forced to move from central Cape Town to new locations assigned to them by the Apartheid government, by way of the Group Areas act of 1950. This hospital is also the site of a public art project where you played a leading role. How did this project emerge and how were you involved?

AP: The Peninsula Maternity Hospital of District Six operated for 71 years. Staff were well loved community figures and oversaw the birth of generations of Capetonians. The artwork found throughout the building and on the exterior walls is the result of a memorialisation process run by the District Six Museum since 2011 after consultation with the Provincial Government of the Western Cape (PGWC) who proposed demolishing the existing Peninsula Maternity Hospital (PMH), for the creation of a new Community Health Centre (CHC). The museum consulted ex-residents and moved forward with their mandate to support the proposal to improve public health care, but showed concern about the memories attached to the old hospital building. Follow up programmes and walks through the District with ex-residents for the next few years ‘revealed an unresolved anger about the closing and demolition of the Peninsula, a feeling which is deeply rooted in a sense of powerlessness in watching another building being demolished. The Museum had been asked to submit a proposal that allowed for the memorialisation of the complexities of this site of memory. [2]

As a current resident in the District, having been actively involved in community art projects and the museums programs since the late 1990s, I was approached to undertake a curatorial intervention to ‘embody a living repository of memory that mediates past and present in a contemporary moment.’ The opportunity to work with ex residents and midwives towards a collective narrative and to use visual art methodology to assist them in the construct of their memories as permanent public artworks was very exciting for me. I positioned myself as participant in the stories of the city, along with the fabulous humans at the helm of the museum where it is always about flat structures – sharing ideas and recognising the wealthy contributions of each individual involved. So we ended up with a crew of about 30 ex-residents and Peninsula staff members aged from four to ninety two! In addition, artists Donovan Ward, Gary Frier, Garth Warely and Mo Hassan were invited to participate in our project; largely due to the very wide skill set they held together. They work around social issues and engagement in advocacy for social justice and change. Chrischene Julius, Paul Grendon and Terry Jo Thorne from the Collections, Research and Documentation Department of the Museum were integral to the entire process. Together we were able to grapple with how we remember, what we want to say and what we want people to see over a period of almost two years. That intense time of visioning and creating turned us into a family, a learning community. At least 16 months were spent conceptualizing through story-telling, play and research. Most participants had not completed schooling and had never engaged in any art activities. The artists did not have the lived experience or knowledge of the content. So it was a very organic process – finding each other and finding our way by sharing our strengths. A large amount of time was spent listening and looking, attaining a certain level of visual literacy and the critical viewing of vast examples of art-making through the ages. Ideas were processed until we reached that ‘AHA!’ moment. One of those moments was when Dr Wright (gynaecologist and obstetrician, consultant in charge of the Peninsula Maternity Hospital from 1983 until it closed in 1991) brought a dried flower to a workshop and eagerly asked us if we recognised it. Most of us knew what it was and shouts of delight and story telling were incited. The Flower of Maryam was used by District Six midwives and women during the birthing process. Once labour began the flowering shrub was immersed in water, opening as the birthing cycle unfolded. Women carried the flower with them to the Peninsula Maternity Hospital as family heirlooms brought from North Africa and the Middle East, where the flower is also known as the Rose of Jericho or the Flower of Fatima. We decided to feature it as a sculpture depicted in its open and closed state. Each participant drew a branch that grew form the same stem, and one seed and pod to depict their family. Closed, the flower holds the potential for life. Open, and once the seeds are dispersed, birth and rebirth is made possible. It is a powerful maternal image that speaks to shared indigenous knowledge and a sense of belonging to a community even through migration and displacement.

PMH Mural and Flower of Maryam, District Six. Photographer: Paul Grendon. Courtesy: District Six Museum
PMH Body Maps, District Six. Photographer: Paul Grendon. Courtesy: District Six Museum

We also created a hand painted mural on the wall facing the CBD titled: ‘District Six in PMH, PMH in District Six, 1921–1992’, illustrating the symbiotic relationship between the midwives and doctors and the community. Although located on the edge of the District, Peninsula Maternity Hospital was at its heart – most District Sixers and many Capetonians were born there. The mural depicts the bustle of community life, familiar buildings and characters from the area. The bulldozer in the left hand corner hovers over District Six, a sign of pending forced removals. The hands meeting in the centre represent the sense of kanala and healing. They reach between the past and the present, reaching out to acknowledge the pain of loss, but also to receive a returning community.

Furthermore, the group was very keen to work with spray paint and the idea of tagging. But we drew on the First Nations method of storytelling through palimpsests, which reveal layers of voices over time that share the same space. The concept of re-enacting memory by the multiple layering of tangible and intangible stories, voices, recollections and fragments in this contemporary medium resulted in interacting relief figures or body maps that speak to relationships across generations. Participants also brought in artefacts such as a PMH fork mistakenly carried away from the hospital, PMH issue nappies and silver one rand coins that were received as baptismal gifts. These were framed in wood refurbished from old Hospital floorboards and displayed in the waiting area along with a projected documentary video. Archival footage, interviews with participants and workshop/installation videos by participants were collaged to make up a 45 minute video. The group also curated large format prints from the District Six Museum archive for the interior walls. We also worked with the local crèche Stepping Stones to create drawings of the children’s dreams of a bright future which we printed on white boards for the children’s section in the hospital. They are accompanied with markers so that patients can colour them in and add temporary drawings.

Everyone involved is very proud of the legacy we have left on the streets of District Six. We acknowledge that no individual can take credit for our collective work. We have moved on to do other wondrous projects under the auspices of the museum. At this point, the group is so ready to take on any visual art project because they recognize the kind of social cohesion it can bring about. We have created 3 metre tall puppets, light installations, undertaken garment construction and countless two dimensional artworks that are then performed or exhibited to commemorate events and educate audiences around pertinent social issues that directly affect the city and our lives in it.

GV: Placemaking, the pragmatic act of making place can be transformative in the lives of a community. Your work can be read as a series of interventions into the social and architectural fabric of the city. This is particularly important given Cape Town’s history of spatial apartheid and the current gentrification trend where the best located areas of the city have become exclusive pockets of development. In this context, would you say that you are asserting erased identities and public memory into spatial projects?

AP: Everything is political. Art especially is, because it is largely representational of the personal and speaks to a particular framing or perspective – conceptually and in the context of space and time. The power lays in the ability to make sense of the perceptions of the artist, the subject and the audience and the power relations between the three. Who really makes things visible? It should be all three in order to create meaning. But as long as we remain visually illiterate the power is not lateral or transferable. The power to own spaces through the use of the formal elements of art to transform the perception of space and reality, should not be underestimated. Gentrification relies on particular aesthetics/signifiers to indicate resurgence or renewal: slick derivative street art, charcoal facades, juxtaposed typography, etc. Then you find some small businesses or homes on the flats adopting these visual values. Because its kwaai. Trendy. Indicates affluence. No questions asked. It’s like saying that only straight hair can be beautiful. That what you have is never good enough. That’s one way to ensure that a slave mindset will be perpetuated. So while I ensure that people are asserting erased identities and public memory into spatial projects, that’s just the product. The process of studying perception and perceptions is what it’s all about. Being educated, contributing and belonging. Using art methodology to project manage your reality.

GV: Your individual work comments on notions of memory and belonging as this connects to displacement and the idea of home. Could you say more about this? (In the sense that acknowledging trauma and finding ways to heal trauma have been important to you as an artist).

AP: We are such a fractured society. I always marvel in conversation when individuals can trace their family tree back more than 500 years. The majority of South Africans can barely trace beyond their great grandparents due to the dynamics that have played out since the 1500s. We are constantly being uprooted and displaced. We don’t get a chance to grow roots into the land. We have lots of work to do. It will take centuries to work through the trauma. So we need to do what we can in our lifetimes.

GV: Associated to these concepts is your installation, Save the Princess. The Princess Vlei is an important site of belonging for people living in its surrounding areas. It is used for recreation as well as spiritual and cultural ceremonies. These can range from Rastafari rituals, to Christian baptising ceremonies, to the commemoration of Khoi ancestors. Could you take us through how you came to do this work and your collaboration with other artists?

Save the Princess, 2013. Seven channel video installation. Courtesy: Ayesha Price

AP: I grew up around that neighbourhood, in Parkwood. The vlei was the only large permanent body of water there and supported an ecosystem that was like a wonderland. The myths around the vlei were told to us to keep us from creating mischief there or keeping us safe I guess, and it worked. All the kids knew about the curses, the legends about what lurked beneath the surface. So of course going there was the greatest adventure possible. Especially on school big walks or madrassa picnics. When it became known that the City was going to develop it into a shopping mall, many activists came together to advocate against it. Three of Cape Town’s Art Centres created huge biodegradable dream-catchers to hang in the trees to draw awareness to the infringement: Battswood, Peter Clarke and the Children’s Art Centre (the school I was teaching at). From there we created the Flight of Dreams parade with Paul Hendricks and Bridget Pitt where hundreds of kids would be making bird costumes, puppets and masks to parade through the streets. This is still an annual event. Through all these processes, I became absolutely fascinated with the Princess legend: that the vlei is a depository for the tears of a First Nations people whose princess had been violated by colonisers. And how as a fractured society, we are letting this happen again. So I aimed at a multi-channel video installation in a cavernous black space. The seven tall strips of video were at least 4 metres deep and gave one the impression of being underwater, at the scene of the crime, in the air and looking back through time. The videos: black and white digital and stop frame animations and footage, played on a loop creating an ominous yet peaceful environment, like the vlei. I collaborated with Garth Erasmus who develops very interesting and haunting soundscapes with indigenous instruments. These tracks were layered over each other and at certain points in the installation flowed into each other. My intention was to draw upon Princess Vlei and its loaded history to stimulate the viewer’s awareness of perpetuated subjugation and the importance of identifying such a threat and breaking the cycles of trauma.

GV: How did the collaborative aspects of this work in a practical sense? For example, would you commission the soundscape for Save the Princess created by Garth Erasmus, based on a pre designed concept or would you work together on the concept to realise the finished sound piece?

AP: I have absolute respect for Garth as a mentor, friend and practitioner. He just always gets it right because he is at once so considered and so liberated. We did not discuss the workings of the collaboration, just mythology and the social issues – which are among his interests too. He let the conversations percolate for a very short time and before we spoke again he sent me a curated collection of original soundscapes and experiments. I matched them up to particular videos and he gave me the thumbs up.

GV: What is your approach to medium?

AP: I use whatever medium speaks best to the concept and the context for display. I think that having taught across most media for so long and with so many individuals, I am quite skilful at most art making techniques. This year I have had a hand in producing works in cement, advance material composites, video, paint and pastel, ceramics and I have also created three dimensional paintings and sculptures in a virtual dimension. I really love making, and need to have as many skills in my pocket as possible so that I can deliver the most eloquent experience. In the public artwork projects I do – turning civic spaces into community art galleries – I try to encourage as wide a variety of media as possible, so makers can learn to see their particular effects and because a public audience is very diverse, there is something that appeals to everyone’s sensibilities. The patrons will be viewing the collections for many decades to come at the old Peninsula, the Pelican Park Clinic, and the Du Noon Library interior. So the eclectic artworks need to be conversation pieces and draw comparisons, not serve as décor.

GV: I find the multi-faceted nature of your practice interesting, but I think your most prominent contribution has been on public art projects where you have collaborated with various stakeholders, including community members and other artists, for instance, Donovan Ward and Gary Frier. Could you tell us a bit about your approach to collaboration – how this process works with community stakeholders and other artists?

AP: With public projects I work with community members who volunteer to undertake the journey with us. So these call outs usually consist of community liaison officers drawing up lists of community organisations and interested individuals, then walking together through the community to find out who enjoys drawing or has the best stories, etc. Donovan and I have been collaborating since the 1990s. He was the first professional artist from the Cape Flats that I met and that was in my matric year. The quality of work that Donovan is capable of is really astounding, such sound and challenging concepts and an unmatched finesse when it comes to technical skills. Over the years we have come to really know each other and our boundaries and have worked on many projects. Both he and Gary are dedicated to social change and work really relentlessly to develop ideas and create. Gary and I have taught together at many institutions and I feel really safe leaving children in his care. He is an expressive artist while Donovan can achieve hyperrealism; Gary is very comfortable working with form while Donovan is a whizz with digital art. Together we have a great skill set and we want to change the world. We are not a formal collective and mostly work within diverse teams across many projects. We just always seem to draw each other into our projects, whether it’s to team up or just to gain perspective.

GV: Another notable collaboration with Donovan Ward is the Delville Wood museum project. What was your role there?

Remember to forget. Forget to Remember, 2016. Video Still. Delville Wood Memorial, France Wood museum project. Courtesy: Ayesha Price

AP: Donovan led that huge project. I assisted him with a thirty square meter relief artwork representing the battlefield in France where so many South African lives were lost. From afar the landscape is evident but upon approach the medium of assembled organic material (bone, fossil fuels, ash, resin and clay) speaks of decay, mortality and sacrifice. I spent weeks buying, boiling and curing bones. That was a production of note, especially as we were using barrels of polyurethane resin. I produced a large scale projected video installation for the site largely because the digital medium of mutable light and time raises questions and elicits reactions about how history is recorded and how we exclude/include the intangible heritage of cultural experience and the experience of the individual in memorialisation as opposed to the narrative dictated to by the ‘whole’ or ‘system’. This video is placed opposite and in response to the existing bronze by Mike Edwards commissioned by the Apartheid government. It depicts South Africa’s role in German South West Africa, German East Africa, North Africa and Palestine during the First World War. This bronze is dominated by the figures of Louis Botha and Jan Smuts, the latter’s quote inscribed across the length of the panel: ‘I do sincerely believe that we are struggling for the preservation against terrible odds of what is most precious in our civilisation.’ My video scaled up the contributions of those downplayed in the commemorative bronze, namely the SA Native Labour Corps and the Cape Corps.

GV: Your most recently completed project is at the site of the Pelican Park Clinic. What did you hope to achieve with this project?

AP: The Pelican Park Clinic will play a pivotal role in the health and wellbeing of the community and will therefore also serve as a hub for education and the respect and appreciation of life/lives. This public space will see the coming together of diverse people, who are historically all facing issues of strife, caused by systemic socio-economic conditions. We worked towards the collaborative creation of meaningful visual markers representing visions for a growing, safe and healthy community in Pelican Park.

Installation of ceramic mural, featuring artwork by 180 participants, 2019. Pelican Park Community Day Centre. Courtesy: Ayesha Price
Trevor Botha, Ayesha Price, Jeremy Rezant, Donovan Ward. New Horizons, 2019. Mural (acrylics), Pelican Park Community Day Centre. Courtesy: Ayesha Price

Greer Valley is a Doctoral candidate in Art Historical Studies at Michaelis School of Fine Art and a research fellow at the Archive and Public Culture Initiative at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

[1] Engaged art is a pedagogical model of art which gives prominence to the art process as a tool for learning. It focuses on engaging community as participants in the art process rather than as mere audience or consumers of an artistic product. In engaged art, participants are changed into subjects, actors or artists, as opposed to being audience, passive consumers or spectators.

[2] Adapted from Julius, C. Project Proposal, Memorialisation of the Peninsula Maternity Hospital, 25 June 2014