Lesley Perkes is the chief executive of AAW! Art Management, a Johannesburg company that makes public art. At 51, she is somewhat of a rebel with a cause… to spark our imagination and stir up our dreams. She spoke to Justin Nurse.
Growing up, we weren’t people with money. My father tried many careers and we had mixed fortunes. I had to work from a young age and gained lots of corporate experience over the years. In my last gig, running the biggest international trade fair in Africa, I inadvertently helped Chinese exporters sell MSG into Africa; stuff like that. It disturbed me, but I have always been the breadwinner so I suffered through the spreadsheets which, ultimately, has enabled me to support some artists in realising their potential.
I started AAW! to create a bridge between the government and corporate sector and the world of imagination. We ran the Sandton Central Arts Programme for five years, and it was hard and beautiful work. There are more than half a million working class people in Sandton who come out each day during their lunch breaks. We did street art that appealed to them and the tourists, though not the corporates. Try as we did, generally we found they had more confidence in what they saw in Paris. Here, it is often just a hindrance on their way to work.
Public Art Works
I’m proud of Johannesburg Art City, which took us eight years to get the money to do. We wrapped 10 000m² of outdoor advertising space with one exhibition by artist Mary Sibande. The exhibition was about servitude and the dreams of ordinary women, and the images were all in conversation with each other across the city. One group of kids thought it was an ad for OMO, but most people really got it. They want art in public space.
AAW! also curated “emergency art” projects to reinvent Johannesburg during the World Cup, such as Coca-Cola’s giant Cratefan, by artist Porky Hefer, at Mary Fitzgerald Square, and at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Cratefan may look like a giant plastic man, but he’s actually got 36 tons of steel inside him.
For the Gauteng government we installed land-artist Strijdom van der Merwe’s 20 000 yellow hands waving at people at Gillooly’s Interchange as they arrived. No one knew what it was. Some thought it was a yellow team that was being supported, others thought they were taxi signals.
Neighbourhood Target Practice
This is our own-sponsored project. We take an eyesore site that has been neglected and presents an opportunity to do something interesting, tangibly, visibly altering the environment in a way that makes people feel a little less powerless.
We haven’t asked permission for these projects, as the people we have to ask permission from are often the ones responsible for the mess. Even though we know the compliance procedures from working with the relevant authorities, part of the action involves not having to fill in any forms and questioning who owns public space. We sometimes stand there with a clipboard, and if anyone asks what we’re doing, we give them a form to fill in. It’s about doing something in your neighbourhood.
Can you give an example?
The Troyeville Bedtime Story is our poster child. It’s a legend. A pile of rubble had been lying in a park for years, on the corner of Bezuidenhout and Viljoen streets – which is one of the only green spaces that exists in inner city Johannesburg. One day I noticed it while driving my son to school. I preach public art, and realised I should be practising it. The park is filled with a lot of homeless people and the aspiration for the “two-year guarantee store” way of life.
I had this change burning a hole in my pocket from the World Cup, so with the help of artist Johannes Dreyer, we turned it into a double bed with creased sheets, a duvet half falling off the bed, pillows, and a plush headboard. It’s made entirely of concrete. The neighbours all helped with supplying water and power, space and tea; even homeless people brought things. People now come and have their portraits taken there, others come and do performance art at the bed; shoots happen there, people sing songs about the bed… it’s become a “place”.
Why did you make an unmade bed?
It’s so romantic, and beautiful. I just said “yes” to everything, which was fun. We’re all going to die anyway, and I want to have a story to tell when I’m old. I get desperate to be useful, and when I work I’m at my happiest. Bringing ideas about art into regulated public spaces is important in places where people are brought up being discouraged from having opinions. When we work we feel fantastic, especially when it’s mischievous and non-compliant.
Are you hopeful?
I’ve got a responsibility to be hopeful because I’m of the age to have some experience. And the work that I do is less about changing the world than it is about changing how we feel about being in the world. When we work, we touch what it feels like not to be powerless. But I do feel powerless. I’m a romantic idealist who has been hit over the head. There’s an overwhelming fascism, a political correctness, out there. The feeling in the boardroom is often “keep quiet”.
How have you been hit over the head?
Last year we raised a million rand from the KZN government to paint a kilometre-long bright blue line in Durban’s city centre for COP17, to show where the water might be one day. We had letters of endorsement from the Presidency and it was going to be a curtain raiser to the climate change event. When we presented it to the city manager, the notorious Mike Sutcliffe, he vetoed it. He said it was too European, and that the line needed to be brown, which he claimed was the colour of poverty. Anyway, he squashed it. Public art is on steroids, it’s raw. We ended up changing over 300 street names to “Sutcliffe Road” in broad daylight in about four hours. We wore lab coats and had clipboards.
Are you proud of your city?
I love Johannesburg, and I love South Africa. But I’m not a nationalist kind of patriot. I’m a human first. This is an inspiring place as so many things need imagination.
Please visit: http://talentsearch.ted.com/video/Lesley-Perkes-Making-a-bed-the;TEDJohannesburg and vote for her to go to the TED conference in California in March.
* Justin Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh It Off.