Solo Studios, Intimate Art Encounters in Riebeek Valley proves to be a well-run, enjoyable experience writes LUCINDA JOLLY. Here’s her post-mortem.

Annually, before the silly season really takes hold, the artists of Riebeek Valley and West open their studios and invite an intimate engagement between themselves and the public under the auspices of Solo Studios, Intimate Art Encounters. Being the sticky beaks that humans typically are, curiosity – with its frisson of going behind the scenes – is a strong pull factor.

Falko One After Life. Picture: Lucinda Jolly
Falko One, After Life. Pictures: Lucinda Jolly

Sharp counterpoint

Riebeek was all big skies with archetypal, fixed puffy clouds and soul settling open spaces, elements associated with getting away from the big smoke to rewind and restore. And an art festival that also showcases local wine and food is the perfect excuse to do just that.

Driving through the town is a contrasting palette of established green and palomino blonde. Tender, frilly leafed vines as suggestive as Judy Chicago’s dinner plates compete with the blonde of wheat fields shorn as close to the earth as a cat’s caesarean. My host commented that you always have this vying palette of green and palomino. The crops simply swop seasonal roles. Sometimes the wheat is green, and the vines spent. At other times the vines are green and the wheat fields burning pale.

Solo Studios proves to be a very well run, enjoyable experience in a beautiful place. It offered the usual fare; a spread of painting, sculpture, print making, photography, performance art, wine and beer brewing and chefs’ delights. As in most places in our country there is always the shadow of a darker history, a sharp counterpoint to upmarket art festivals. In big cities it’s easier to hide the divides of privilege. In small towns they are more keenly physically felt and seen. And the divides frequently involve a railway line and always, always land. Riebeek is no different.

In the mid 1960’s, as if a portent to District 6’s forced removals 5 years later, 62 coloured families who made their livelihood as small farmers were forcibly removed from Oukloof, land owned by the Dutch Reformed Church and sold to white farmers. Originally the land was given to a Dutch Reform mission station by a wealthy farmer expressly for a coloured residential area. The gift of land was not an act of philanthropy but of expedience, fostered by fear and its by product racial division. For white people didn’t want people of colour living too close to them. White people could of course own the land in Oukloof but not live there. People of colour could live there but not own the land. Forcibly removed Ouklowers were given inferior land at the bottom of the hill and their church and homes were destroyed- their sense of belonging ruptured.

Maria Appollis, an Ouklower writes poignantly and evocatively of her experience of living at Oukloof before the removals. How Esterhof, the place Ouklowers were removed to, was “a mourning town in the making …  It first had to be tamed”. Appollis writes about the “uncomfortable two-roomed homes. The smell of the rubbish dump and the dam with the cellar runoff was an asphyxiating stink”.

Falko One the olive branch is hard work
Falko One – the olive branch is hard work

Shift your mindset

Esterhof lies beyond the railway line, a dividing line between the white and coloured communities. It is against this historical background that street artist Falko One’s AFTER LIFE finds its context. The same could be said of several community-based projects which attempt to be bridges across divides. There is theatre director Mark Graham-Wilson’s drama group The Olive Branch Project which is currently in the process of producing Romeo and Juliet (chosen for its themes of division, prejudice, love and reconciliation) using actors from the community. Also directed by Graham-Wilson was Georick Veltman aka The Mirrorsister’s, performance, The Harlequin’s Needle which looked at the difficulties and emancipation that the queer community face. Artist Emma Willemse whose practice involves issues of displacement, together with the Arteri, a collective of young creatives from Riebeek Valley made mandala like stone circles with stones collected from the surrounding Kasteelberg Mountain and Voëlvlei Dam which were used for social distancing in the amphitheatre of the Royal Hotel. The Arteri, a hub for the young and hip showcased Uncouth Youth, an exhibition of design, illustration, fashion and performance.

Ten years ago, Falko One visited small towns with his ONCE UPON A TOWN project. His aim was to democratise art, seminal to street art, by providing those who could never afford it spray painted images on the walls of their low- income houses. It so happened that Riebeek was his first stop.

Falko One may have chosen a decaying, abandoned building next to a graveyard on the outskirts of town to add poignancy to his clever, punny, sad, funny, visual commentary, but nature amplified  the impact with a glittery light so sharp it threatened to pierce the retina and a wind determined to hurl red dust into every orifice, whipping hair and clothing at the opening.

You get a sense of Falko One the man behind the artist from his quote “…I didn’t do graffiti for political reasons …there was no cause greater than the immediate cause, of getting some girls and respect!” It’s simple, refreshingly direct.

The dark humour and puns were apparent right from the title AFTER LIFE written in Frank Mason Robinson’s Spencerian script referencing the drink Coca-Cola’s promise to add life.

Inclusive of the surrounding natural environment, Falko One’s brightly coloured images are an invitation to shift your mindset through the interaction of your body with the images on the decaying walls. Unusually Falko One chose the body, the housing common to all humans, for his point of departure. Where you place your body in the context of AFTER LIFE is where your mindset lies. Move your body a few paces to the side or forwards and your whole viewpoint and interaction changes. Here’s an example.  There is an image of a white and black fist each positioned on either side of a wall that is torn down the middle. if you stand in one position the one fist will appear to be holding the tree, stand in another position and the other fist will hold the tree, stand in yet another position and the tree is shared by both fists. AFTER LIFE is rooted in various viewpoints.”. It demonstrates physically, that viewpoints are fluid and can be shifted in an instant in a playful, non -prescriptive way.

Falko One’s exhibition, with its emphasis on shifting the body to change the mindset, touches on what Resmaa Menakem, a therapist who calls himself a “soul medic” and who refers to his work as “cultural somatics”, who has worked at U.S. military bases in Afghanistan and author of My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathways to Mending our Hearts and Bodies, wrote that “ trauma lives not in our brains or emotions, but in our bodies. Recent studies and discoveries increasingly point out that we heal primarily in and through the body, not just through the rational brain.”

And if one missed the event, prints of photographs taken by Falko One from AFTER LIFE can be found at Pictorex Photographic Print studio in Riebeeck.

What: Riebeek Valley Solo Studios Intimate Art Encounters
Pictures: Lucinda Jolly