In 2008, Africalia and the city of Ghent chose South African Ismail Farouk to create a work of art for Ledeberg, a borough of Ghent. His functional artwork ‘Smaaklik’ is not there yet, in the meantime Farouk shares his views on space and society in Ledeberg, Europe and his home country South-Africa.
It is one of the few sunny spring days in March and I have an appointment with Ismail Farouk at the Vooruit café in Ghent. I see him waiting for me, calmly observing his surroundings with a keen eye and an open mind. Later he explains that this is how he works: he uses all his senses to capture the rhythm of people’s comings and goings, the sounds, smells and colours of the space he is making an artwork for.
Ismail Farouk does not believe in static art such as statues or monuments in public spaces. Streets are in constant movement, a never-ending flow of people, activities and functions. ‘Urban developers see the public space as the ultimate sign of social cohesion’, says Farouk. ‘But they often have a very rigid view on social cohesion which makes them chose blunt and inefficient instruments.’
In one of his first reports on Ledeberg, Farouk states that a mere superficial restyling of houses or neighbourhoods only makes the poorer communities move out to more affordable areas. ‘To many, the contribution of the artist lies precisely in this’, Farouk says, commenting on his role. ‘Artists are supposed to use culturally driven mechanisms to trigger a more profound interaction. Unlike urban developers, artists should see to it that their work is about the communities living there, not about themselves’, he specifies.
Such an undertaking consumes a lot of time and energy, though. One needs to invest in communities, not only moneywise but with vision too. ‘This is a real challenge, especially when you are an outsider and do not live in the same city. It is almost impossible’, he says about his assignment. True to his own view on art, this did not stop him from coming to Ledeberg several times over the past few years, to get a feel of the surroundings and its people, the beating heart of the community.
Mad about art
Ismail Farouk is an artist-scientist, and has been a researcher for twelve years. With a Master’s Degrees in Human Geography and Fine Arts, he now works on his Ph.D. in Cape Town, while at the same juggling a dozen other urban projects. Farouk grew up in Lenasia, an Indian township sixteen miles from Johannesburg, during the height of Apartheid. As a youth, he attended one of the few art-schools for coloured people. When his parents decided to move further south, every day he made a 25 mile journey to school. ‘That is how I became aware of the split geography of South-African cities under Apartheid.’ Schooldays were interesting times. ‘Every day the police was there. There were boycotts, protest marches, strikes and student leaders were arrested.’
These events and an inspiring teacher who made him discover the art of painting, opened up his world at a young age. ‘I became acutely aware of the social division and the spatial segregation in our cities. It is the inspiration for my work.’ In his own country Farouk is particularly fascinated by the informal economy in which many migrants in South Africa try to make a living.
‘When I look at the body language of people of colour crossing the Ledeberg square, it reminds me of Apartheid. That is unsettling.’
In Johannesburg he set up a project with the so-called ‘trolley pushers’, people offering customers in the inner-city a means to transport their luggage and other heavy loads. ‘Trolley pushers operate on the margin of the law, as to begin with, the trolleys have usually been stolen by some middlemen from some large department store. Most of the time, the pushers are poorly paid for their services, as customers know their activity is illegal. Often they are arrested before the weekend, to be released on Monday in addition to a large fine. ‘In our project with the trolley pushers we created a legal alternative for the trolleys. We mounted cameras on them to film the police, in case we needed evidence. We distributed hand-outs in seven languages with legal advice on what to do when arrested.’
During the football World Cup 2010, together with other organizations, he protested against a loitering ban that had been dug up from the Apartheid times. ‘It was a true social cleansing operation, being black and on the street was enough to get arrested. This is a blatant violation of our constitution,’ he says with passion. ‘We made sure that there was legal assistance available and every case taken to court.’
‘Smaaklik (Enjoy your meal)’, he says smiling while we are nibbling from our pasta. Adding pepper, salt and tabasco does not help to make the dish any less unsavoury to him. Meanwhile I am very curious about the impression an average Flemish suburb like Ledeberg makes on someone like Farouk, who literally came in from the other side of the world. Even more so because he is someone that makes the effort to really look. Farouk’s insights ring as those of an unpretentious scientist, he chooses his words with the sensitivity of an artist. His answers have depth and are well thought through.
In Ledeberg he mainly looked at venues of consumption around the central square. ‘Most of them are fairly homogenous. In the typical Belgian pubs most patrons are white. The same goes for the Turkish bars, where there are no women and no customers of other ethnic backgrounds.’ In between those he did find spaces where people of different descent meet. For example the Turkish bakery Aktief, or artist Daniela’s guest table. She invites people from everywhere to cook or to have a chat. ‘Food is a central element in human interaction’, Farouk concludes.
Food therefor inspired the artwork he proposed for Ledeberg: an eleven meters long construction with uneven heights in the shape of the Afrikaans word ‘smaaklik’ (‘bon appetit’). ‘It rings Dutch, yet at the same time, as stipulated in my assignment, it has this African touch. Even though people rather expect something with a leopard print when they think African’, he adds with a chuckle. Not wanting his work of art to be static, he brings in dynamism by making it functional. Smaaklik can be a bench on which people can sit, waiting for their bus or a tram, listen to a concert or a speech, or a place where people can access the internet via a wifi-hotspot.
We end our meeting on the sunny steps of a theatre in the centre of Ghent with a decidedly savoury cup of coffee. Listening to his stories and his take on the microcosm of Ledeberg, I wonder where he thinks that people live a better life. ‘In my work I zoom in on every detail and all forms of expression. When I look at the body language of people of colour crossing the Ledeberg square, it reminds me of Apartheid. That is unsettling. People are tiptoeing around, you can see that they do not feel free.’ When speaking about his home country, he sounds much more up-beat: ‘We still have a long way to go in South-Africa. Differences in economic opportunities still exist, but divisions are mostly class-related now.’ When he travels to Europe or America he is wary and guarded. We end up exchanging airport anecdotes, reminding each other of the red tape visa rules for non-Europeans, the suspicion directed towards people of colour and bearers of non-western names. ‘Racially, South-Africa is one of the most progressive countries in the world, one of the few places where you can really relax. It is not for nothing that we are called the rainbow nation’, he adds proudly.
For more info on Smaaklik: www.africalia.be
Translation by Ann Vlaminckx