By Kathryn Jaruseski, Public Health in South Africa, Spring 2012
When I chose to study public health and economic development in South Africa, the fine arts were definitely not the first thing on my mind. However, in the midst of classes, clinic visits, safaris, and various excursions, I have received a large amount of exposure to the fine arts scene of this vibrant country. I can by no means claim to be an expert on any type of art, but this has been a creative, exciting side of South Africa, and I have been lucky enough to experience it through various trips, conversations, and class sessions.
During our recent trip to Johannesburg, we visited a site called the Bus Factory; it was a novel initiative to combine local studios with a gallery in a space that was open to the public. And it happened to be housed in an old bus factory, a warehouse-like space that provided a rugged, interesting backdrop to the artwork. Since various studios are in the building, we had unrestricted access to the artists themselves. The highlight of my time at the site was a conversation with a male artist who enthusiastically shared that he loves art because, “it gives me freedom; I can make whatever I want, and it’s OK.” This assertion was inspiring to me, and I would have been interested in speaking with him further, as I wonder if he uses art as a form of liberation from a specific difficulty in his life.
Also in Joburg, we attended a performance of a play called Woza Albert! at the Market Theatre, a small venue in a trendy area of the city called Newtown. The actors were remarkably energetic and talented in the show, which posed the question of the second coming of Jesus during apartheid. Although our group had a bit of trouble understanding some of the jokes that left much of the crowd in hysterical laughter, the play still successfully provided us with an even further taste of the rich fine arts scene in Johannesburg and the country as a whole.
The highlight of my fine arts experience in South Africa, however, came in our Culture, Language, and Identity course earlier this week. We were lucky enough to be joined by Diana Ferrus, a famous South African poet, for a conversation and recitation of her work. She shared her story with us, telling us of a difficult experience growing up in an impoverished colored family as well as the successes that she has enjoyed in her career, but said that she has found reconciliation in poetry, as “stories can be the place where the former divided meet.” After performing several readings of her poetry, she left our class with this statement: “I want to thank you for coming to my country. You will leave [South Africa] with an image; you will leave with impressions. So please, do come back.”
Though the fine arts are only one of the many areas of South Africa that have affected me and left me with new ideas, my exposure to artwork, theatre, and poetry during this program has provided me with an even greater understanding and appreciation for the rich culture of this unique country. I have learned that impressions and images come from a collection of experiences, and I am thrilled that interaction with artists and poets has been one of many cultural opportunities that I have enjoyed in South Africa.
…and since I respect Diana Ferrus after meeting her, I think her advice (as well as the wonderful time I’ve had on this program!) is a great excuse to come back to South Africa!