Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Terry Kurgan's Hotel Yeoville

Yeoville is like another country. This is what artist Terry Kurgan proposes at a press briefing for her latest public art project dubbed Hotel Yeoville. Certainly for liberal whites like her who perhaps squandered parts of their youth in the bohemian cafes and clubs that once flanked Raleigh Street, Yeoville is unrecognisable. Its character and population has shifted considerably since the late nineties when migrants from around the African continent from such places as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ghana, Mozambique and, of course, Zimbabwe, settled in the neighbourhood and reinvented it to suit their needs. Though a few South Africans remain in the suburb, it is estimated that more than 70 percent of the suburb's residents hail from the rest of the continent.

The physical infrastructure of the neighbourhood is dilapidated, but the streets are buzzing with activity and trade is brisk with an abundance of small shops, hair salons and internet cafes attracting locals. The stylised signage that advertises some of these establishments has a distinctly West African vibe; the images recall the personality of the art of Chéri Samba, a painter from the DRC, whose work was exhibited at the Johannesburg Art Gallery during the Africa Remix exhibition. So for all intents and purposes Yeoville perhaps does look like "another country" - albeit an African one.

Kurgan's statement is not only revealing of the physical changes that have taken place in the neighbourhood, but of the disconnect between South Africans and the migrant communities that have settled in Joburg's inner city suburbs. During the xenophobic attacks which saw thousands of African nationals victimised by South Africans in 2008, this unseen community came into focus. Kurgan suggests that the media's gaze directed attention to this community's most vulnerable and disempowered members, creating a slightly false, if not unrepresentative picture of the foreign African population in this country.

Her aim is to counter-balance some of those sensationalist images that ran on the front pages of newspapers depicting migrants as victims of violence by summoning the more everyday details of their lives.
"There is political importance in becoming familiar with the every day life of this community," urges Kurgan.One senses that the Hotel Yeoville project is driven to not only get an authentic grasp on this community which lives on the fringes of our society, but to satiate our curiosity; who are they? Why have they come here?