Last weekend I attended the Brixton Light Festival (hereafter referred to as the BLF) for the second consecutive year. I wrote a comprehensive post about the BLF last year, so in the days leading up to this year’s event I thought maybe I wouldn’t need to write another post. Ha! I was wrong.
I’ve put off writing this post all week because the BLF made my brain explode. There is no way I can cover all the amazing things I saw and experienced. And I didn’t even see and experience everything because there was just too much; the festival spanned several days and included at least 280 artists. No to mention that most of the festival happens in the dark and is beyond challenging to photograph — I often put my camera down and just stared in wonder at what happened around me.
But let me try to show and tell my experience, as briefly as possible.
Brixton Light Festival 2023: The Warmup
The theme of this year’s BLF was “Watershed: Where the Water Meets the Light.” Southern Africa’s watershed, which is the dividing line between where water drains eastward toward the Indian Ocean or westward toward the Atlantic Ocean, runs right through Brixton. Everyone living in Brixton was asked to light up their houses according to which side of the watershed they live on — warm colors for houses on the Indian Ocean side, cool colors for houses on the Atlantic Ocean side.
While the main BLF parade and performances took place on Saturday evening, there were a bunch of smaller events leading up to that night. There was an interactive children’s exhibition called Light Box, open all week at the Brixton Recreational Centre. There was an alley exhibition, in the alley between Barnes Road and Fulham Road, on Friday evening, featuring photos, maps, artwork, and live music. There were all kinds of warmups and rehearsals and costume fittings, which were great shows on their own.
The Main Event
The main event in the evening kicked off with a market in Kingston Frost Park and a number of artists performing.
The SA National Youth Orchestra, wearing striking sky-blue and white cloud suits, played a rousing rendition of Fanfare to the Common Man as the Brixton Tower lit up. And then the parade was underway.
I have several friends who came to the BLF for this first time this year. A couple of them told me how surprised they were that it wasn’t a conventional parade, where spectators line up along a route and watch the performers go by. At the BLF, the spectators ARE the parade: Everyone walks the route together, stopping along the way to watch various performances and exhibitions. I think that’s what makes the experience so magical — everyone is part of the art.
The parade headed down Wimbledon Road to the Brixton Pawn Shop, a bright-yellow building covered in wild, hand-painted ads. South African singing sensation Bonj Mpanza was performing there, surrounded by pawned fridges, washing machines, and TVs, in a fur-lined golden coat with a ten-foot train. Bonj was backed up by her musician partner Clem (Bonj and Clem are my neighbors — I’m so proud of our Brixton creative corner) and more puppeteers shaking plastic jugs and exhaust pipes.
I wanted to stay at the Pawn Shop for at least an hour, but also I didn’t want to miss anything we so moved on and turned right onto Caroline Street. In front of the old Roving Bantu Kitchen we watched a performance by the Windybrow Youth Choir, all in white robes and holding candles.
Then things really got crazy. The Field Band marched past, accompanied by its wonderful dance troupe, followed by Little Nana, a ten-foot-tall puppet girl riding an enormous tricycle. We all watched, electrified, as the Field Band and Little Nana went by, and I didn’t take any photos. You can see a video clip of Little Nana in this Instagram reel I made.
The crowds had really built up at this point — there were at least several hundred people in the parade — and I missed a bunch of things. But luckily I didn’t miss Hyperjump.
Whew! Are you still with me? At this point we were nearing the end of the route. But we still had the Brixton Kerk Church — once a conservative Dutch Reformed Church, now a center of the diverse Brixton community — where a Zulu metal Band called Shameless rocked out on the church steps with a song called “Victim of the Data” (the South Africans will understand).
We thought that was it. But as we came around the last corner of the route, we looked up and saw a trio of glowing art students from the University of Johannesburg, lit up like happy, neon skeletons, dancing to rave-like music on top of someone’s roof.
Just before we went home, I spotted Wandile Tshabalala sashaying around the corner. You might remember Wandile from my post about the Brixton Fashion Show, where Wandile won the prize for best model. Somehow I had missed Wandile’s installation, “Siren’s Call”, at the start of the parade, so I was happy to get this chance to photograph him.
There are many, many things I loved about this festival. But the very best part is that everyone was included. People of every age (from babies to octogenarians), race, nationality, gender, profession, and socio-economic group attended and performed in this festival. The festival was free. It was the best party of the year (without any alcohol, by the way) and every single person I’ve spoken to who was there had the time of their lives. Everyone in Brixton is still talking about it. I can’t believe how lucky I was to be there.
Endless thanks to Tamzyn, Sophia, Lucy, Mark, Ann, Cammie, Percy, Kyla, Fried, Fassie, and everyone else (I am definitely missing lots of names) who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make the BLF happen. You are all heroes.