For years I have been passing by an old, roofless house on my route to work. Despite my hurried scramble to the office, I would always look out for her. Sad, abandoned and enigmatic, she has intrigued me.
The romantic in me has, for years, been drawn to the poignant, abandoned beauty of this stoic, red brick structure with pink tibouchina bursting through the front veranda. So, when I heard whispers of a greening project taking place at this very location, I decided that it was time to stop and get acquainted.
I enter the Green Camp Gallery, as the project is called, one Friday afternoon through boldly, spray- painted garage doors, and I’m immediately greeted by a surreal space. Amidst the rubble and brokenness of years of neglect, visual treasures abound. Murals adorn free standing walls while feisty little plants sprout from cracks in the ground and quirky containers of all shapes and sizes.
Old safes, tyres and other rescued objects form the hard landscaping. I look around and I feel relieved that ‘development’ is not on the cards for this old house. What I sense is an attempt at an organic reconnection of earth, man and architecture. I look for the soul behind this vision and find Xolani Hlongwa.
Xolani, a man with a far-away look, doesn’t say too much about the project at first. He wants people who come to the Green Camp to experience and engage with his vision, maybe even sense it.
“Why here?” I ask.
He has been looking for a space in the inner city which is close to a community that has lost connection with the earth, with real food, with growing and feeding themselves. It is a community which includes labourers who travel long distances and young people who have become absorbed in social media distractions.
“Our vision is to have a source of hope within an urban space, where people don’t have to spend to be there, a place you can go to when you are in need of solace – a place to calm down the stresses of the city,” says Xolani.
The Green Camp is metaphoric of inner city possibility. Xolani has found a place discarded by society because it doesn’t fit the veneer of perfection and is slowly rediscovering its beauty. In opening the Camp’s doors to the surrounding community, Xolani hopes to provide a place of healing for both community and structure.
“The most important thing is to be able to grow healthy, organic, affordable, accessible food,” says Xolani. “We need to be able to produce art with food. We’re tired of producing art in a state of hunger.”
He believes that creativity and sustainability should go hand in hand. Ultimately, the Green Camp wants to be a sanctuary for the artist without a voice. This artist becomes a part of the Green Camp community and is then hopefully able to sustain her/himself both physically and creatively.
Xolani is all about the “artistry” or the process of making art or making a difference. In fact, he is the living experiment. With a background in dance, Xolani has been travelling for many years, exploring various cultures and communities. Two years ago, leaving his job and family in Sweden, Xolani felt drawn to return to South Africa. He chose, quite deliberately, to relinquish the comforts of modern day living to live in a tent in the midst of this work in progress. It is hardly ideal.
Having already lived on the property for a year, Xolani has had to confront all of nature’s intense conditions, including wind and rain storms. If the Green Camp Gallery Project is a living installation, Xolani is at its epicentre.
It is a mighty and courageous project and very much in its infancy but it is one which is authentic and so vital for the South African story. Rehabilitation, reinvention and regrowth within broken spaces are themes which lie at the core of this project. The metaphor does not go unnoticed.
Over the last year, the Green Camp has attracted a host of diverse people; including neighbouring children, workers from the surrounding area, students from local educational institutions and others who feel deeply about the environment. Each has brought their own energy to the project. Xolani is emphatic that the success of the project is dependent on the combined skills and efforts of community.
Ultimately the Green Camp will grow into a holistic community centre with a robust and creative food garden, a vibrant gallery space and a functioning kitchen – a transformed and transformative space which moves beyond the rubble.
By Pralini Naidoo