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Painting a Better World

Painting a Better World

Alexandre Tilmans believes the best way to help a young man climb out of poverty and a petty criminal mindset is with a ladder. Or, in many cases, a scaffold.

Alex hires would-be felons as prep crew and security for his International Public Arts Festival (IPAF) held each February in Salt River, Cape Town. As a result, the neighborhood — usually considered a rough one — becomes the safest places in the Mother City for nine days every summer.

I was lucky enough to watch artists from around the world climb ladders and paint their visions high up on the exterior walls of homes, stores, and warehouses during the 2019 festival held February 9-17.

And, sure enough, local “ganstas” were holding those ladders.

Intrigued by the beauty of previous years’ murals and excited to watch the 2019 ones come to life, I texted Alex, a co-founder of Baz-Art Organisation, the festival’s sponsoring NGO, for an interview. We met over coffee on the last day of the festival near one of my favorite new murals (shown above) by Port Elizabeth artist, Ryan Allan. Ryan is the expressive guy in the third photo below.

Alex and I talked about the transformative power of art — how it can change minds, lives, and even whole neighborhoods. He stressed that the community of Salt River has (mostly) fully embraced the festival and the art it produces every year.

“This is a majority muslim community, so it’s essential that the art respect their heritage and beliefs,” he says. IPAF features a theme each year — 2019 was “Generation Next” — and dozens of artists submit ideas that comport to the theme. “A conceptual drawing must receive approval from the building’s owner, the four closest neighbors, and the city. If it’s slated for a wall near a school, park, or sports field, it also must pass muster with a residential committee.”

Despite how restrictive this sounds, the murals certainly don’t lack drama, and the required local buy-in make them a real point of public pride. “You know you’re on to something when the skeptical elderly lady from year one is now giving private tours,” he says. Baz-Arts also offers official tours during the festival and beyond, and the aforementioned young men have created a cottage industry out of tourists tours for 50R a pop.

Each year’s chosen 25 artists, half South African and half hailing from far-flung places, contribute their time and talent to the festival pro bono. In return, Baz-Arts commits to securing at least one paying commission per artist within the year, and often more. “The level of talent we’ve been able to draw to IPAF is incredible and South African corporations and communities looking to enhance their buildings with public art now turn to us to find them the right fit,” he says. Festival sponsors, including the city of Cape Town, international embassies, and private citizens, cover the artists’ travel, food, housing, paint, and supplies.

The overall result after year three of IPAF is a community on the rise with local businesses starting to flourish and new investment taking root, more than 80 pieces of amazing public art, and young men finding purpose.

Not a bad track record.

Peace through Community

Peace through Community