Terri Dunbar-Curran

YOU may have noticed an abundance of yellow around the city as gates, doors, pillars and even whole buildings have been given a splash of paint.

But apart from brightening things up a bit, the impact of Cape Town’s World Design Capital (WDC) status hasn’t spread very much further than those already involved in the world of art and design.

However, architect Janine de Waal and ceramicist Hennie Meyer, the team behind Ukusela eKapa, are on hand to help you get to grips with just what the WDC means for average Capetonians. Armed with wooden crates of fresh clay mugs, they’re inviting the general public to get their hands dirty and have a squeeze, all in the name of design and connectivity.

Participants each get to grasp a still-wet ikomityi (clay vessel), write their name and age on the bottom and collect a keyring. Towards the end of the year all the completed ikomityi will be arranged in site-specific installations and everyone who took part will be able to go and collect someone else’s mug – in a way, passing on a handshake.

The duo attended a discussion about the previous World Design Capital, Helsinki, and the creative wheels started turning.

“Cape Town and Helsinki are worlds apart,” says Meyer. “We wanted to come up with something that would involve more people, not just designers and artists.”

They asked themselves what the most basic thing was that everyone needed. You don’t need a plate or utensils to eat, but you do need some kind of vessel to drink out of, and so the idea was born.

“It was important that it was a functional object, not a luxury,” says De Waal. It was also imperative that people be involved in some pivotal way, which was quite a challenge.

“Clay is soft and dirty to work with. That’s how the ‘handshake’ idea and squeezing came about,” explains Meyer. The specifics of the idea fell easily into place, but executing it was a much longer process, and involved the collaboration of a lot of people, from graphic designers to engineers and design students.

One of the biggest challenges was devising a way to transport the soft clay vessels to the public without them getting damaged, and that’s where the students came in. They were tasked with designing crates.

“We needed to be able to access them from the side and not the top. They had to be light enough and small enough that one person could handle them,” explains De Waal. They received about 80 submissions, and the one they settled on looked like a fairly standard crate from the outside, but once opened it was a pleasant surprise.

“People have been very excited about the boxes,” says Meyer, adding that the Ukusela eKapa branding completes the image perfectly.

Falke, the manufacturers of socks, also jumped on board by donating discontinued anklets which, when filled with small plastic balls, offer resistance so that over-enthusiastic squeezers don’t destroy their mugs.

The main installation at the Castle on November 23 will be designed by land artist Strijdom van der Merwe, with another installation taking place on Robben Island. There are also site-specific works at Oude Libertas and IS Art in Franschhoek, each featuring 500 of the mugs.

The team has already facilitated over 5 000 of the planned 10 000 squeezes, and is tackling the logistics of the project head-on. Apart from the 1 000 currently on display, the other vessels are being fired, glazed and placed in storage.

“We’re going to be holding a few smaller installations, so people are aware of what’s happening to the cups,” says Meyer. “Logistically it’s been quite a challenge, but we’ve worked it out quite well.”

Between 200 and 500 are produced each week, with fresh vessels being stored in airtight cupboards to keep them from drying out before they reach the public. “It’s quite time-sensitive,” says De Waal.

But what has really made an impact on the pair so far has been the connection with people.

“The one-on-one aspect has been really good, that physical contact with people,” says De Waal. “I can’t think of a ‘best squeeze’ though, but there have been lots of special moments.”

Meyer recalls one participant in Gugulethu Square who hung around after his squeeze urging others to get involved.

“We wanted to thank him specifically. He couldn’t write and didn’t know how old he was. We gave him a finished ikomityi – it was really special. Those kinds of moments stand out.”

De Waal says what was so special for her is that even though the participants haven’t made the mugs themselves, the moment they squeeze they take ownership, they realise they can actually be involved in creating things.

And one of the main messages they’re trying to get across through this project is that everything man-made is essentially “designed”.

“We’re all designers, we’re all part of the design of our own lives,” says Meyer.

Another aspect to the project is an auction of ikomityi squeezed and signed by noteworthy South Africans. The likes of Helen Zille, Zapiro, Marius Weyers and others squeezed several mugs, one which they get to keep, one which goes back into the general mix and the rest which are to be auctioned in aid of charities. So participants may be lucky enough to get a handshake from one of their icons when they go to collect a random mug in November.

l See www.facebook.com/ ukusela.ekapa for more information.