From Boyle Heights to Cape Town:

Alma E. Catalán
May 30 · 6 min read

Connecting locally and globally through the arts

By Alma E. Catalán

Alma Catalan at The Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden located in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape province.

Uqhakamishelwano: The power of the arts

In March 2019, I was awarded a Squire Foundation Travel Fellowship that made it possible for me to participate in an international field study to Cape Town, South Africa while completing my graduate studies in arts management at Sotheby’s Institute of Art at Claremont Graduate University. My participation as an artist, arts administrator, and arts advocate was important and undeniably critical as an emergent arts leader. The theme for the trip was ughakamishelwano which means to communicate. The word is in IsiXhosa, one of the languages from South Africa.

During the field study, many concepts, concerns, and comments were exchanged. The experience made me think beyond the parameters for arts management in the United States. They are guiding questions to become globally-conscious in my practice as an arts administrator. The experience raised my consciousness about the ways in which we create systems of change not only locally but globally.

A big concern I noticed in Cape Town is the need to invest in the youth and young artists. Similarly, in California, youth who live in underinvested communities don’t get access to the arts. The youth in Cape Town and California who are artists and creatives who want to pursue careers in the arts don’t necessarily have the resources to make a living as creatives. Now, I ask myself these questions with a wider arts advocacy lens: How do we create systems of change to reach communities who have been historically underserved — from California to Cape Town.

As a woman of color, the conversations we had about owning our leadership have been on my mind. I often feel that I’m not fully prepared and I’m in constant need to gain more skills. I navigated graduate school as a first generation college-goer and learned to overcome the imposter syndrome. I don’t want the imposter syndrome to follow me into my career. I understand my role is important and chose to flip my perspective. How can academic or cultural institutions create safe spaces for more inclusive and diverse leadership? What would happen if we cultivated our own leadership? What will happen if we don’t?

In our conversation with black artists from the University of Cape Town, who are also first generation college-goers, similar concerns were raised. They don’t see themselves reflected in leadership positions in museums and other cultural institutions. The field study was not enough time to tackle and exchange all of our concerns, ideas, and best practices, but we found solidarity. We agreed that our voices matter and we need to speak up.

From right to left: District Sixth kids. Two girls playing on a homemade swing. Left: Two boys playing baseball in the street.

I Left Home to Come Home

I found unexpected commonalities with my own home in Boyle Heights and Cape Town. These two pictures are of our visit to the District Six Museum. The Museum was built to honor the histories and communities of District Six who under the Apartheid regime were relocated to townships. They say that history repeats itself. On this particular visit, I couldn’t stop thinking about Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles, California. Similarly, residents were forced to leave their homes to build a baseball stadium and what is now the Dodger Stadium. Today my hometown of Boyle Heights faces similar challenges due to gentrification, I am taking back these stories, strength, and museum strategies to preserve our histories and honor our communities.

“No matter where we are, we are here.” — From the Fresco Wall of District Six Museum

Joe Schaffer, our District Six docent who used to live in the community, shares his story.

Theatre for the Community by the Community

“Nothing about us without us.” — Makukhanye Art Room

From right to left: Musician Nceba Gongxeka and spiritual performer Lulamile ‘Bongo’ Nikani performing Under Mud & Fire Parables piece title, ‘uhlambuluo’ cleansing which was conceptualized and curated by Mbothwe and Doni Collective.

We had the opportunity to visit arts organizations in one of the townships with Mandla Mbothwe where we met local artists and theatermaker Thando Doni. Makukhanye Art Room is a “shack theatre” based in Khayelitsha. Their mission is to create theatre for the community by the community. One staff member said their concept is simple, “Nothing about us without us.” At the core, they are interested in reclaiming the stolen memory of their community. It is through their performances that they take back their stories and identity. One artist said, “We go back into our memory, and we re-tell our stories.” It was incredible to see the actual space and learn from the founders what they have been able to create. From the outside, all one sees is a black “shack,” but as soon as you step inside you are in a black box theatre. We had the opportunity to watch two unforgettable performances. At the end of the performances, they hosted us and served us with traditional South African food. I left this theatre feeling inspired. In Los Angeles we often say we don’t make theatre because we don’t have the budget. We put so many obstacles and we forget why we need and want to create theatre. In this township, they don’t. They create. As one actor said to me, “We do poor theatre. We use what is available. This style allows us to reclaim space and place. This is theatre for the marginalized communities. We are healing and educating.”

From right to left: Women from the community prepared us delicious South African cuisine, Left: Arts management students.

The Arts Can Heal Individuals, Communities, and the World

“Forgiving allowed us to learn and understand the way warrants behaved. We befriended each other even though we couldn’t say it out loud.” — Dede Ntsoelengoe

Right to left: the author and Dede Ntsoelengoe

Once a student activist and ex-political prisoner, Mr. Dede Ntsoelengoe is now an asset to the Robben Island Museum. These two pictures were taken during my visit. In the first picture, I’m with Mr. Ntsoelengoe, ex-political prisoner # 33884, who is now a lead docent at the Robben Island Museum. He shared some of his most intimate moments as a young activist and as a prisoner alongside Nelson Mandela. The second picture is of the prison patio where Nelson Mandela spent hours walking and tending to the plants. It was here where he began to write his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

Learn More and Support The Abencolgolo Collective

Some of the young artists we met co-direct the Abencolgolo Collective. This group grew out of the bilingual Nguni acting and theatre-making class run by Mandla Mbothwe. The Collective was selected to perform a play they created on the Bullhoek Massacre in 1921 at Makhanda Arts Festival and will be performing for a national audience. Mamello Makhetha writes, “We are reclaiming our land, our history, and our languages.”

You can check out the other highlights from our trip on our project page. They included a visit the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden, Zolani Centre, the Iziko South African Museum, The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa which is the largest museum of contemporary African art in the world!

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