Making a difference through art

Artist and co-owner of Ahem Art Collective, Thea de Klerk, addressing the audience at the launch f the exhibition in April this year.

A mother and daughter team are hoping to use art to tackle the crime and grime in Observatory.

Barbara Langridge and her daughter, Thea de Klerk, who is an artist herself, joined forces and opened Ahem Art Collective (AAC) in Observatory, to promote illustration art.

In June, the pair started an initiative which saw them lining the Observatory streets with art pieces, with the aim of making the space safer for pedestrians. Their idea was to bring art to the people in order to engage a wider audience.

Ms Langridge said: “Instead of the apartheid style idea of increased visible security, I decided to put art on the street. The idea is to engage passers-by through outside art. Maybe the people who feel intimidated that art is only for the elite (will be less intimidated by it). We are anti-elitist in our life views and want to try and reach our community through art.”

Sadly, through this initiative, one of her most prized possessions, an indigenous art piece by Zimbabwean artist, Barry Lungu, was stolen.

Ms Langridge said the piece was part of a personal collection and while it had no collectable value, it was the first piece of art bought in Zimbabwe and it was a piece she had managed to retain after being being forced out of her home during the land reform process.

“I never bothered to report it stolen. I did get video footage of the thief removing the piece, but I was not permitted to share it,” Ms Langridge said.

She came to South Africa 10 years ago as a refugee, but is now a citizen of South Africa by registration.

“I found South Africa very demographically split when I came here, with great racial divides and tensions. My background is that I grew up in a white minority-led country, experienced war, division and all that came with the colonisation of Africa.

“I had privilege but after the land reform programme, I understood more about how it felt to have nothing. This led me to try and make a difference to my community as well as find ways to promote those who had suffered by being disenfranchised in South Africa,” Ms Langridge said.

The theft of one of her most prized possessions, however, has not deterred the mother-and-daughter- team, who believe that the initiative is making a difference in Observatory, as Ms De Klerk said: “Crime is down and certainly we are attracting different people to the area. We encourage diversity. This is an important aspect of what we are trying to achieve.”

The AAC was opened in April this year for artists working in the digital field, who generally have little chance of showcasing their own work.

“This genre is often overlooked and certainly ignored by mainstream South African art – dismissed in fact. They mostly work for large commercial corporations who take the credit for their work, and thus they are more or less prisoners to the corporates,” said Ms De Klerk.

“AAC is trying to change this by offering a space and channel to showcase their work.”

The initiative is currently evolving and they are now looking at collaborating with the landlords next door to create an art exchange which would provide work spaces for struggling artists and hopefully build Observatory as a destination for artists, crafters and performers.

“This is a natural evolution of an event I started eight months ago – Art Thursdays in Obz – a monthly event that brings artists to showcase work in pop up spaces across Observatory… mostly temporary exhibitions at cafes,” Ms Langridge explained.

Ms De Klerk added that they were trying to promote art as a way of bringing communities to a common cause and to “give people a place to sell art, to meet, to have access to improving their art, and to socialise across social divisions”.

She highlighted that through the initiative, they had managed to meet some amazing people in this space, having recently embarked on a journey with a young man from Gugulethu to create works reflecting township life and how women were framed and depicted.

“We are doing an exhibition called Township Beauties and will be showcasing French artists’ works on the same genre as a way of comparing perceptions of beauty as well as celebrating some of the positive aspects of township living,” Ms De Klerk said. “As humans, we need to shift our paradigms to work for the good of community and communal spaces where no matter your socio-economic background, you still find channels of opportunity to co-exist. I am trying to do something positive, but it is hard. There is a lot that works against it.”

Through the ACC, the pair also adopted an employment philosophy of giving people second chances, with two of their staff being recovering addicts, and one of whom spent time in prison.

“Our hope is to offer ACC as a place for bridging the gaps,” said Ms Langridge.

They are now also attempting to build international networks, and have works by a number of French, Japanese, US, Canadian and Italian artists in their gallery, including that of Russian animator Aleksandr Petrov who won the Oscar for best animated short film in 2000.