A year ago, I wandered into a gallery in Joburg’s Maboneng Precinct and discovered a photo exhibition comparing Sowebo — a low-income neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland (USA) — to Soweto.

I was surprised and excited to discover the Soweto/Sowebo exhibition. I grew up in the Baltimore suburbs and used to have family in Sowebo. But Sowebo is a small, obscure neighborhood and few people outside Baltimore know it exists. Who would think to do an exhibition like this in Joburg?

Soweto Sowebo 2012

Last year’s Soweto/Sowebo exhibition at Area 3 in Maboneng.

The photos in the exhibition belonged to street photographer Martha Cooper, a Baltimore native now based in New York. Martha came to Joburg in 2012 to document a graffiti project called I Art Joburg. While she was here, Martha saw some parallels between Soweto and Sowebo, where she owns a house, and documented them.

I didn’t know Martha then and didn’t meet her while she was here in 2012. But it turns out we have several connections. Martha went to high school with my aunt and is a friend of my dad, who is also a photographer from Baltimore.

After I wrote a blog post about last year’s exhibition, Martha and I got in touch via email. She told me she was planning to return to Joburg in 2013 to continue her Soweto/Sowebo project, and hoped to meet me in person. Martha kept her word. She’s here now, along with graffiti artist Lady Aiko, winding up a month-long stay at a Soweto artist residence.

This past weekend, Martha and Lady Aiko opened an exhibition of their work in Kliptown, Soweto’s oldest informal settlement. I went to the exhibition and found it remarkable.

Kliptown, despite being a historically significant place, remains one of the poorest settlements in Joburg. Kliptown has no legal electricity, no paved streets, and no indoor plumbing. With the exception of a handful of modest cinder-block houses, Kliptown is a community of shacks. It’s not an easy place to live and certainly doesn’t host many international art exhibitions.

Boy and doll

A typical scene in Kliptown, minus the group of (mostly affluent and white) people in the background who were there to see the exhibition.

Exhibition

Martha’s newest collection of Soweto/Sowebo shots. The exhibition is in a house-turned-gallery — by far the nicest house in Kliptown — owned by a guy named Pops.

Soweto Sowebo

Martha presents her images in pairs: Soweto on the top, Sowebo on the bottom. Incidentally, Sowebo (short for South West Baltimore) was named after Soweto (short for South West Townships).

Lady Aiko, who does stencil graffiti, painted murals all over the neighborhood, transforming several Kliptown buildings and shacks. She combined her work with existing stencils by a local graffiti artist named Nkululeko Mahlangu, and the two also worked together to create new murals. The results are dramatic.

Saturday’s opening included a guided tour of the new graffiti.

Transformed space

I love this. The guy living in the house seems to like it too.

Artist residency peeps

Martha (right), Lady Aiko (second from left), and the two people who run the Soweto Artist Residency: Dumisani Phakati (left), also known as Malo 8, and Ntokozo Mabunda (second from right). 

Nkululeko mural

This photo is not very good. But it’s the only shot I got of Nkululeko (left), the Soweto-based artist, with one of his murals.

Kliptown jump

The artists and exhibition guests pose for a jump shot. It was a fun crowd.

I also loved this exhibition because it gave me the chance to walk around Kliptown and take random street shots.

Drying bunnies

Two newly washed bunnies (one headless), hung out to dry.

Dancing boy

A boy shows off his Zulu dancing skills.

Girl and grannie

Cute kid and her granny.

I was in Sowebo myself just a couple of weeks ago, during my visit to America. I parked there while attending a Baltimore Ravens football game with my dad. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to take photos while I was there.

I’ve been feeling kind of lost between continents lately, so this exhibition came at the right time for me. It was comforting to connect with someone from “home” so soon after getting back to South Africa from America. I can’t explain exactly how, but Martha’s pictures remind me that no matter where I go in the world, people are more or less the same.

Marty and Heather

Martha and me in Kliptown. Thanks Marty, I’m glad to have met you. (Photo: Tim Van Rooyen)

The Kliptown exhibition will be open until 2 November. For more information, contact Ntokozo at info.sowetores@gmail.com.

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