The Spectacular Brixton Light Festival, Revisited

by | Sep 8, 2023 | Arts and Culture, Brixton, Johannesburg, Music/Festivals | 10 comments

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.

Brixton Tower lit up for BLF
Brixton Light Festival: The only night of the year when our iconic TV tower (along with all the trees in Kingston Frost Park) gets lit up like a lava lamp.
Tekwana performance at the Brixton Light Festival
Artist David Gara (back to the camera) exhibits his incredible sailing ship sculptures as part of an avant-garde puppeteer performance — more on this in a minute. In the background is a lit-up sacred ibis sculpture by Alistair Findlay of Lilian Road Studios.

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.

Blurry photo of dove puppet at the Brixton Light Festival
The majority of the 2,000 images I shot during the festival look like this.

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.

Barnes Road watershed
The watershed runs straight down the middle of Barnes Road. The line is demarcated here with paint and tiny blue and red glass beads.
Thorsten and Heather at BLF 2023
Thorsten and I in front of our house, which sits on the Indian Ocean side. We were right at the start of the parade route.
Brixton Water Tower lit up for the festival
Brixton’s iconic water tower, which straddles the watershed, was half blue, half red. Our friend Kia’s house, in the foreground, is on the Atlantic 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.

Kids at the Light Box exhibition in Brixton
School kids play with a giant Lite-Brite at the Light Box exhibition. As a Gen-X American, I was very excited by this toy and played with it for quite a while myself.
Dog in Brixton
The cutest dog in Brixton. (Not part of the BLF — I just met him at the Brixton Recreational Centre and I love him.)
Ship rehearsal in the park
Another one of David’s ships, shown here as part of the puppeteer rehearsal by Well Worn Theatre Company.
More ships on hats
Ship hats.
The alley exhibition
The alley exhibition, featuring a beautiful watershed banner designed by Brixton architect (and BLF star) Mark Shearer. The musicians on the left, Vimbs Mavimbs and Zaiem Malik, where getting ready for their performance later on.
Watershed map art
Watershed map art designed by BLF mastermind Tamzyn Limb and her team.
Kids at the alley exhibition
Outlandish art and happy Brixton kids at the alley exhibition.
Field Band rehearsal
The Field Band Foundation rehearsing.
Cyclists from the Sentech Croozers and the Soweto Street Fighters get ready to ride in a warmup for the parade.
Cyclists from the Sentech Croozers and the Soweto Street Fighters get ready to ride in a warmup for the parade. Their nighttime spinning performance was dope, with literal sparks flying everywhere, but I didn’t get any pictures. Read more about the spinners here.

The Main Event

The main event in the evening kicked off with a market in Kingston Frost Park and a number of artists performing.

Brixton Local Vocals
Brixton Local Vocals, the Brixton community choir, put on a lovely performance.
Ayanda and Kganyapa from the Drill Hall
I recently wrote about Ayanda (left) and Kganyapa (right, under all that plastic) of Exotically Divine in my post about the Drill Hall. Kganyapa and his colleague Forest were artists-in-residence at Shade Brixton leading up to the BLF. Kganyapa’s costume is the artwork he created.
Forest of Exotically Divine
Forest made a crazy cape (which also serves as a picnic blanket!) out of plastic trash.

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.

SA National Youth Orchestra
This photo does not convey how fabulous the National Youth Orchestra’s outfits were.

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.

Tamzyn kicks off the BLF parade
Festival MVP Tamzyn Botha, aka Limb, kicks off the parade.
David's ships
David’s ship show, called “Tekwana” — a collaboration between David and Well Worn Theatre — was the first performance along the route. There’s no way to accurately describe what happened here. But basically David sat working in the middle of the street with all these lit-up ships and mist around him, while the puppeteers slowly walked in circles, holding ships and wearing ships on their heads in a way that mimicked sailing on the sea, all to a crazy soundtrack that included David’s own voice.

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.

Bonj and Clem
Bonj and Clem at the Pawn Shop.
Bonj singing
I can’t handle it. I still have goosebumps a week later.

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.

Windybrow Youth Choir
The Windybrow Youth Choir.

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.

Hyperjump, a troupe of dancers in shiny jumpsuits skipping with glow-in-the-dark jump ropes longer than school buses, as a band of drummers played in the background. Oh, and sometimes they jumped through hula hopes while simultaneously double-dutching. The group was directed by Luke Buckland and Daniel Buckland. There’s a video clip in the reel.

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).

Shameless band at the Brixton Kerk
Shameless Band was amazing and the audience went crazy.

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.

The UJ trio
The U.J. Arts and Culture trio.

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.

Wandile at BLF
Wandile slaying as usual.

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.

Brixton Light Festival
Viva, Brixton Light Festival, viva.


  1. Barend van der Merwe

    Excellent! Always such a joy to see all the pictures that you share.

  2. Ms. Nancy Anne McDaniel

    It’s things like this that make me tell people YOU MUST GO TO JOHANNESBURG (not just CapeTown) when you are in Joeys. The creativity and energy is unparalleled! Thank you for sharing (and going)

    • 2summers

      The most creative city in the world, for sure.

  3. AutumnAshbough

    A parade in reverse, with the spectators decked out! Nice. The ship puppeteering looked so cool. And I do like the fact that there was no alcohol–very family friendly. But my favorite thing to see was probably, “Light Brite, making things with light/ Oh what a sight, making things with Lite Brite!”

    • 2summers

      I knew you would be the person to comment on the Lite Brite. Go Gen-X!

  4. dizzylexa

    Thanks for this, almost made me feel as if I was there. Love the map of the watershed line and the tags of the types of people to be found in each area – “Rich and very rich white residents”.

    • 2summers

      Hahaha, I also liked those things!

  5. Amy

    I was dying to come and witness this, but then I didn’t because (how lame) I wasn’t sure what the parking situation was like. I have two small kids and I know they would have LOVED this, but if one doesn’t live in Brixton and doesn’t have a friends house to park at, where would you say would be the best place to park? Such a boring question but I will NOT miss out on this next year!!!:):) thanks for the write up and the pics xxx

    • 2summers

      Hi Amy, I totally get it! Most people I know from outside Brixton came in Ubers, which seemed to work well for everyone. Some people did drive and just parked on the street outside the parade route, but I get that not everyone is comfortable doing that.


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