By Chelsea Haith
Several tables were set up in the Assumption Development Centre (ADC), laid out with art supplies. A square of paper on the floor read: You Are Here. When the music started playing, a group of children began to dance. Several adults looked up from their finger painting and smiled, before going back to their work and sharing stories with one another.
The Free Space, an idea borrowed from Cape Town collective The People’s Education, allows people to gather freely and without judgement to create art. Held on Thursday, 30 July at the ADC, this Free Space was the first event of its kind in Grahamstown. It was an experiment by the Rhodes University Community Engagement Centre for Trading Live.
“We didn’t know how people would react to going to a space and being told they’re free. And how do you create freedom anyway?” said Dr Nosipho Mngomezulu, the Student Volunteer Programme Coordinator.
Mngomezulu’s concerns were unfounded and the Free Space was filled with the quiet hum of people talking and making art interspersed with laughter, poetry and music. “I was really blown away in the way that people were open and sharing each other’s stories,” she said.
Instead of engineering a situation in which students and staff from Rhodes simply give to the community without engaging, the Free Space created an environment where people could simply be people without being defined by their social position. In this way a Free Space allows a more genuine interaction that avoids the process of ‘othering’, an unfortunately common aspect of global community engagement programmes.
Seated at the tables, one couldn’t tell students, staff and community members apart. This is evidence of the function of art: to allow people to lose themselves and give to one another emotionally and freely, without expectation. “That’s the kind of positive model that we want to do with Community Engagement, that’s the whole point: that you have real relationships with real people,” Mngomezulu said.
Paul Daniels II, another organiser of the event, was struck by the focus with which the participants approached the experience. “Everyone there was very intentional about making the space a creative space, drawing and dancing and painting and singing. That intentionality made it a safe space for people to give of themselves,” he said.
Every single person in the Free Space made something on that cold and windy Thursday afternoon. The art produced included abstract drawings, portraits, dream-catchers, sketches, designs and poetry. People sat shoulder to shoulder murmuring their stories and keeping one another warm with care and compassion.
Mngomezulu explained that the free space allowed people to talk about difficult issues without agenda and without constraint.
“The playing is part of that process, a kind of meeting people where they are, understanding that other people might approach these issues that are very contentious and very important in various ways, and instead of imposing on them how they ought to, you free the space. And magic happens.”
Note: All images by Chelsea Haith