*This is the third essay in a series of four “We the Audience” posts designed to introduce my readers to the citizen artists working in some of South Africa’s most challenged areas. Today’s essay focuses on Charlie Jansen and the Butterfly Art Project. Charlie is one of the participating artists in ArtUp’s “Sites of Passage: South Africa” project.
My time in South Africa was filled with the unexpected: each day and each outing led me to new artists and new community-based arts projects. A great example is the day trip I took to Frygrond; I went there to meet Charlie Jansen, one of the artists involved in ArtUp’s “Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs” project, and ended up discovering a whole treasure trove of equally inspiring artist-activists. Charlie is a young man of extraordinary energy whose story I’ll tell in a bit.
But first it seems important to introduce the Butterfly Art Project, an NGO operating in Vrygrond Township. Vrygrond is often referred to as “apartheid’s dumping ground,” an awful expression but unfortunately an accurate descriptor. As one of the oldest “informal settlements” in the Cape Flat area (southeast of central Cape Town), Vrygrond has a long history of unemployment and all of its attendant problems, from domestic violence and substance abuse to street crime and HIV. Here are some sobering statistics: There are 1600 purpose-build houses in Vrygrond but at least 44,000 people (you do the math—if you can stand to). Only 50 percent of the area’s children attend the primary school. The official unemployment rate is about 50 percent, but most believe it is actually between 70 and 90 percent. About 60 percent of the population has been the victim of crime.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that despite these extremely difficult living conditions, Vrygrond is a vibrant community determined to find social and economic justice for its people. I was invited to Vrygrond by Angela Katschke, the founder-director of the Butterfly Art Project, one of several NGO’s in the settlement working to address the needs of the community.
Angela came to South Africa from her native Germany in 2009 in order to use her skills as an art therapist. While working with school-aged children at the Capricorn Primary School in Vrygrond, she began developing her vision for a creative space based on the healing nature of art. With the help of a volunteer board (headed by Bernard Dudley) and a thirteen member staff, Katschke raised the money to build a two-story structure to house the project in 2013.
Today the Butterfly Art Project provides art classes to 700 area primary school children a week and offers a variety of other services, including (among others): art therapy for traumatized children; after-school art sessions for children and adults; and workshops designed to train Vrygrond residents to become their own community art facilitators. In all of these initiatives the goal is to provide a safe environment for peaceful reflection and expression. “Our community is full of challenges,” Angela notes, “both social and environmental: gangsterism, violence, HIV, single parents, unemployment, lack of service delivery, school drop-outs, racism, and more. Our project seeks to combat these issues with positive mentoring relationships, artistic development, and therapeutic support. We seek to grow the future generation by developing artists for all of South Africa!”
On the morning that I visited the Butterfly Art Project building, Angela and her team were in the middle of the daily security briefing led by Barbara Chisvo, the Arts for Pre-schoolers Manager. Security briefings are a normal part of life among NGO workers in the townships—there are times when gang activity makes the work very dangerous and appropriate planning is critical.
But that sobering start quickly transformed into joy as I accompanied Charlie Jansen and Firdous Hendricks, the Art for Capricorn Primary School Manager, into one of the classroom studios to meet a group of fifth graders. Firdous and Charlie are inspiring teachers—with quick wits and lots of energy. Still, student attention in this room is hard to lasso, harder still to hang on to (they are ten year olds, after all). Since it’s their first session of the school year, the kids are asked to create a group drawing of a butterfly. The group I sit with—four boys and one girl—decide instead to do their own thing, drawing five different versions of a butterfly. I sit with them, trying not to interfere, thinking about kids and attention and crayons and butcher paper and how many ways there are to draw a butterfly’s antenna. I also think about how far this room is from the privileged middle class environment of my own youth, and the relative comfort and opportunity of my two sons’ childhoods.
Which makes for a good segue to Charlie Jansen’s story. Charlie grew up in Vrygrond, spent time in jail, and found his way out of the cycle of poverty through his interest in drawing. He joined BAP’s Community Art Facilitator training program to improve his artistic skills and to learn how to facilitate community-based arts projects. As Angela observes, Charlie’s “talent for drawing was quickly apparent, as was his open, curious kind of enthusiasm.” He was invited to join the BAP professional team in March 2014. His colleagues call him a powerful role model and say that when Charlie challenges his young students to stay away from gangs, violence, drugs and crime, he knows what he’s talking about. Charlie puts it this way: since he has personally traveled down the same road as his students, he “understands the impact of Art (hopes/dreams) and Leadership (heroes/mentors).”
There is talk of Charlie eventually taking over the leadership of Butterfly Arts when Angela steps down. This would be a closing of the circle fully in keeping with the principles of arts for social action work: returning the community to the community.