Art infects the city

IOL Tonight | Theresa Smith:


Infecting the City spread its wings earlier this year when it ran a public arts festival in Mbombela in mid-January.

Infecting the City curator Jay Pather said the Mbombela public’s lack of jadedness was refreshing, with audience members deliberately seeking out performances.

Rotting Treasures

“People were so excited, you felt like you were feeding them,” he said about the two-day festival.

It’s not that people in Mbombela were undiscerning – festival organisers drew on 17 local and national performers and if the performances did not have a particular context that made sense to the audience, they voted with their feet.

The performances that worked best were the ones which clearly had something to say about the architecture or the social milieu of the Mpumalanga capital and redefined the spaces or created a new experience.

IOL Infect 2

Organisers realised that using routes to plan the performances and channel the audience also drew people who weren’t necessarily aware of the festival in the wake of those in the know.

These are all ideas which have been refined over the past seven years as Infecting the City has grown from an offshoot of the now disbanded Spier Summer Season to a public art festival which challenges Cape Town to notice hidden perspectives.

Initially the festival, presented by the not for profit organisation The Africa Centre, was themed around a specific issue, while this year it is non-theme specific.

In addition to the festival exposing passersby to art they would not necessarily encounter in everyday life, site-specific works also draw attention to buildings and specifically the architecture of the city.

Pather pointed out that people traverse spaces in Cape Town without necessarily looking up, but the performances draw the eyes up, down and sideways, resensitising people to the beauty and form around them: “That’s the great thing art can do, remind you of being alive, jolting you, awakening you to something you take for granted every day.”


The site-specific works planned for this year do not only draw attention to the city’s architecture, but also touch on themes and ideas which affect people living and working in the city.

“I don’t think art is necessarily going to change anyone’s life, but these kinds of performances have the capacity to allow for access to another way of being in the city. These kinds of public art interventions can be a way to develop a vocabulary as to how to speak, or how to be in the world.

“They teach you to understand metaphor and the power of symbols and how symbols can encompass what you’re feeling deep inside of you, the frustration, the difficulty.

“I think in our current failure of the imagination we’re needing to find these solutions fast because, quite simply, there are sectors that do not understand. There’s a sector going, ‘I cannot believe you’re continuing to live like you live knowing we are in such abject poverty’ and there’s a sector going, ‘I cannot believe you can come here and scream and shout while I am trying to make a living’.

“Art can open up these channels of communication,” said Pather.

While some of the performances or installations are critical of 20 years of democracy (like Rotting Treasures which uses video, dance and music to create a visual lament for the men who lost their lives in the Marikana tragedy or 3600 A Day, an exaggeration of the number of 360 cases of rape reported every day, to highlight the magnitude of the problem) others are celebratory in nature (Dance Nation draws on dances from diverse and flar-flung parts of South Africa).

Monique Pelser’s exhibition of large-scale portraits of incidental characters caught in the background of press photographs recontextualises the idea of bystanders as witnesses of what we experienced as a nation and where we come from, while Nadja Daehnke and Owen Manamela-Mogane’s installation piece, Argus, is a nostalgic mourning and remembrance of the many men who had for years been part of the city landscape with their sales call.

Infecting the City takes place around the city centre from March 10 to 15. Pick up a programme at the Festival Centre at 6 Spin Street Restaurant or visit or


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