Photo exhibition: Protest against the self

On my way to the photo exhibition, a drunken man with a foul smell sat opposite me in the train. He had marked his territory with his smell and in so doing had also isolated himself from the rest of the commuters. Before settling down on his sit, he walked around, appearing to be wandering around with no purpose. The way he slouched on the seat gave the impression that he would have preferred if he had been lying down on the floor on his back. The man appeared as if that was all he did, drank and took trains, to what pleasure, only he knows. Some song or another played from his phone, entertaining a few train commuters and angering a few. I think about this when Dean Jates, who had organised a street exhibition that he was hosting in Bonteheuwel, next to the train station, says to me “The media perpetuates stereotypes about us. No newspaper says we are good people. This project is to prove that wrong”. I realised then the man did not only drink and take trains.

The exhibition forms part of a project that occurs in different platforms that he has been running since 2012. The project is not one of those opportunistic foreign-funded initiatives that set camp in a township and does not care whether they make a change or not. What he wants to achieve more than anything else is for people in Bonteheuwel where he grew up to take pride in themselves and not be brainwashed by media that all they are drug dealers and gangsters.

The project does not operate on a big scale. The few photographs, of different sizes, colour grades, and frames lay on small ground. Kids of all ages hunched over the photographs, recognising themselves from a years ago, denying how little they have changed.

The pictures were from an earlier event “Gooi I tafel”, an event that Dean hosted a year ago. In that event, he had mobilised the community of Bonteheuwel to build a table. He never knew what the table was for and looking at on the day of the exhibition, the table still standing there, he still did not know. The event was never about the table to begin with. The table was simply a catalyst for him to get people to work together as a community. During the process, the community had to find harmony or else the table would have uneven legs. His ideas to initiate change are not grand and they do not seem practical at first glance but listen to him explain them and you begin to understand that when his project is complete, all the elements implemented, the people of Bonteheuwel that do not believe anything good about themselves will begin to believe that they are worth something.

“The exhibition is a protest against self” says Dean whilst the rest of the community gets about the festivities of the day. A boy disguising a beer with a black plastic cycles past the exhibition. He comes back again, this time, carrying nothing. He later comes back and thanks Dean for organising the event. This is the gradual step that Dean is hoping to achieve. That the boy would have joined the event and participated would have been the rapid change that Dean does not expect and with it carries the excitement that would not last. That the boy saw the good work is the beginning of a community that is beginning to cleanse itself. The boy was beginning to protest against himself, as Dean had put it.

“This is not mine. This is ours. We must all look after it. We must take ownership” Dean says, opening the exhibition.

He reads from a book that was put together by Emile from Heal the Hood Foundation. The book is a collection of essays, short stories, photographs, graffiti, rhymes, drawings and letters. The book was put together because Emile, like Dean, was fed up of seeing despondent communities who had given up on themselves.

In the introduction of the book, Emile writes that he had gone to a school and asked all the black kids to put up their hands and none of the coloured kids put up their hands because they did not think they were black.

The book and the projects that Dean organises do do not exist to redefine the coloured community. Redefining is a condescending view. They have always been like any other society, fraught with both excitement and struggle; they have always been misunderstood.

Dean also began a newspaper to give the community a voice. Proving that he is not confined to being a critic of the wrong representation of the coloured community. A newspaper that, he explained to me, is not concerned with the frivolity of correct grammar and beautiful design but it is concerned with content. “If the story of the people is told. I am happy. Grammar is not my concern” he said. In addition to this, Dean is also in the process of organising drama, film, dance, photography workshops at the Lydia Williams Center in District Six. There he aims to mentor kids from the township and give them workshops.

“I too am not working” Dean explains to ease my anxiety about how much money he needs to do all of these projects. “You will never do anything if you are waiting for money” He says and is convinced of it.

Dean’s plan to inspire the community of Bonteheuwel and other communities to protests against self is targeting stereotypical representation even in music. “What is AKA saying anyway?”. Nothing”. A rhetorical question followed by an aphoristic answer. Dean holds the view that the youth of Bonteheuwel does not need music that has been passed as cool. He says that they have their own musicians that speak about what is happening in the community in not a condescending manner.

Dean’s obsession with reverting stereotypes that have been for many years now, stretching back from Apartheid into the new South Africa, been perpetuated by mainstream media fuels his very existence. When I interviewed him I got the sense that the passionate character he was in the interview is the same person that he is everyday. This is his reality and not something that wears when he it suits him.

The community’s reaction to the exhibition was interesting to witness. Only a few gathered to view the pictures. The majority peeped through windows and walked past so they can have a look. A group of teen boys gathered at a corner next to the exhibition and then disappeared without ever coming close. The music playing from the PA system was not interested in manipulating anyone to join the exhibition either. The onus is on you to make that decision.  

On the day of the photo exhibition, a notice board was unveiled. The notice board hung on the wire separating Bonteheuwel from the train station. It is not fancy and it does not have to.

“Is the notice board to give us jobs?” asked a woman standing on the other side of the road.

Her question is followed by chuckles but when Dean was done answering her, the chuckle turned into something more powerful, the realisation that we can do this. His response was nothing high breed or theoretical. He told them that the notice board will be used for people to write whatever they want to write, from job, internship, inspiration messages and community notices.

Dean’s exhibition and the installation of the notice board are not, at least to me, eternal ideas. Their physical presence is meant to exist and if they are gone, that does not spell out their failure. The success of the exhibition and the projects before it is that they remain in the community members’ memories. A memory that will, when mainstream media paints the community as gangsters and drug dealers, sprout up into existence and dismiss those newspapers as nonsense and nothing more.

Having lived all his life in Bonteheuwel, 33-year old Dean Jates says his activism not only seeks to transform the area, but also the residents.

The exhibition took place on a garden that Dean had created in 2012. There are no veggies growing there now but that is not the success of it. Its success is that now, unlike before, nobody is dumping rubbish there. Before it was a garden, everyone used to dump rubbish there, endangering the health of the residents. But now old men and women, when the sun is hot with no wind flapping about, rest their loins on their chairs, reminisce about old days or simply not think at all.

It was late when the kids dispersed from the exhibition. After the formal proceedings, they sat and mingled with the elders, staring at the photographs.

Dean’s next plan is to turn the small garden where the exhibition was into a big garden. One that will feed the community.

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