Street art was the first form of social media. Before Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, there were walls – accessible to all, and not restricted by the availability of technology such as smartphones and the internet.
For centuries, "real" art was something only accessible to the privileged, only visible to those who ventured into art galleries and only available to those who could afford the hefty price tags. Graffiti, on the other hand, was not “exclusive" enough for the upper crust because it was available to all. But its value does not lie in the opportunity to own it, but in its power to achieve change.
Graffiti became the voice of the oppressed, the disillusioned, the socially and economically challenged. And while the elite harshly condemned the art form as vandalism, street artists were using their talents to draw attention to social issues that plagued society.
From the time of the earliest humans, walls were the blank canvases of communication, intimidation, complaint and celebration. Walls were the original vehicles of change. Join us as we celebrate this particular form of social commentary.
Social and political change
In 2010, a series of protests, demonstrations (and street art) gave rise to the historically famous Arab Spring revolution where Hosni Mubarak was toppled as the leader of Egypt. Years prior to the revolution there was very little street art in Egypt, but as discontent rose street artists loitered impatiently in alleyways, armed with spray cans and brushes, ready to “voice” their political and social opinions.
In the 18-day demonstrations against Mubarak in 2011 (where 846 civilians were subsequently killed), some protesters threw bricks while others “threw paint”. They painted slogans and murals commenting on the violence that rocked their country. Egypt’s streets were under "art attack" and the people of Egypt took note of the messages.
Today street art is an integral part of Egypt’s social commentary and a sign of the country’s continuous fight for freedom. The walls continue to remind the people that the revolution is not over yet!
Another recent example is the powerful part street artists played in Kiev’s 2016 protests in Ukraine.
Because of the social and political change inspired by street art around the world, art connoisseurs now view the medium through somewhat more rose-tinted glasses. Street art is now a valuable art form.
Who hasn’t heard of the world famous Banksy, the anonymous graffiti satirist who is famous for his political, social, and moral commentary? He is known to ridicule government, corporations, and society as a whole and has stirred up many controversies, which has gained him a healthy 2.5 million Instagram followers — and probably as many political and corporate haters. He is considered one of the best and most influential graffiti artists in the world by academic art evaluators, examiners and collectors.
In fact, Banksy adds property value to any wall he has painted! Banksy’s street pieces (essentially illegally created public art) has made the wall on which it appears valuable. Owners of a building which carries a Banksy have the right to that artwork and can choose whether to keep it, to destroy the artwork or even to sell it.
So how do you sell a Banksy on a building? Well, street art cut from buildings can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars! New York art dealer Stephan Keszler believes that he “salvages” the work by cutting it out of walls. “If I don’t salvage the art, then buildings get demolished or the art gets destroyed by idiots,” said Keszler, who has extracted and sold 15 of Banksy’s street pieces.
But there is an ethical concern with tearing out whole walls from buildings. Banksy fans believe that the works are put out in the street for free, so that all people can enjoy and perhaps even benefit from them and that it is unfair that Banksy himself does not profit from his works being sold.
But don’t feel too sorry for the artist because The Financial Times has estimated the Banksy’s worth to be around $30 million, derived from other income revenues of course, including non-street exhibitions that are auctioned through reputable houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie's.
While Banksy is by far one of the most well-known in this art genre, it was 80s expressionist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat’s street painting “Untitled” that sold for a whopping $100 million at Sotheby's in New York. CNNMoney reported that the 1982 painting beat an Andy Warhol piece to become the most expensive work by an American artist!
Street art South Africa
The most relevant historical context in South Africa is, of course, that of racial segregation officially implemented in 1948 under the name Apartheid. We still struggle to navigate this history today.
The Freedom Charter, a document that was adopted at the Congress of the People in 1955, went on to inspire the first democratic Constitution of South Africa, which finally formally ensured the equal rights for all South African citizens. But change on the ground has been slow and the people have taken to the walls in protest.
In Cape Town, two sites are saturated in street art, reflecting the dark past of our country and the plight of black South Africans. The sites are Woodstock and the central business district. Both sites tell different stories of the post-apartheid period in South Africa. One side tells a story of the celebration of ending segregation, while the other focuses on the ongoing struggle.
Street art Johannesburg
It is Johannesburg, however, that boasts the most thriving graffiti artist network and culture, specifically in the areas of Maboneng, Newtown and Jeppestown in the inner city. These areas boast street art pieces that offer sociocultural commentary on Jozi. Not only the sentiments of locals have been voiced: international street artists and tourists alike have had their interests sparked.
In fact, Johannesburg is now firmly on the global art tourism map, attracting tens of thousands of visitors every year in the quest to see iconic pieces such as ROA’s mural featuring six massive African animals (the giraffe, hippo, elephant, rhino, springbuck and sable antelope) stacked on top of one another as a reminder of the beauty of nature within the concrete jungle.
Another iconic piece that has attracted many art-seeking eyeballs is Ricky Lee Gordon’s (aka Freddy Sam) 40-metre-high mural of "The Shadow Boxer" depicting a young Nelson Mandela sparring on a Joburg rooftop. The piece is situated on the corner of Staib Street and Beacon Road in Maboneng and was completed shortly after Mandela’s death.
Maboneng has grown to become a well-loved lifestyle neighbourhood with its live, work and play ethos. The Precinct has encouraged artists to put their mark on the cityscape and developers have even offered artists residencies in exchange for public artworks.
One of the most recent street art pieces to be added to the Maboneng Precinct is the Yvonne Chaka Chaka tribute piece that was expertly crafted by famous Portuguese street artist Vhils.
Collaboration: Vhils and Hennessy
Vhils likes to call himself an “urban archaeologist” as he focuses on penetrating through layers of street posters, dirt, and plaster to set free the art and history hidden beneath. He does this by chiselling away the negative space in the plaster to create his art pieces — which are more often than not portraits of living people.
Born in Portugal in 1987, Vhils (also known as Alexandre Farto) grew up in the outskirts of Lisbon and was raised during a period that was deeply affected by the aftereffects of the 1974 Carnation Revolution. As a child he witnessed the effects of the war on the walls which inspired his artistic style and his need to express his opinion.
Vhils gained prominence when he carved a portrait that was revealed alongside street artist Banksy at the Cans Street Art Festival in London in 2008.
He has become world famous for his chiselling technique using chisels, hammers, drills, etching and bleaching. He believes that we are all composed of layers upon layers of social and historical fabric. Our social system is the product of similar layers and by eliminating some of the top layers; we may be able to accomplish a more pure form. This artist's motto "Making the Invisible Visible" became the basis of his recent collaboration with Hennessy.
Earlier this year, Vhils teamed up the world's best-selling cognac to produce the Very Special Limited Edition Hennessy bottle, a custom-designed bottle, which launched a new instalment of Hennessy's tradition of artistic partnerships. The bottle is the eighth in the ongoing series of artistic collaborations between Hennessy VS and international street artists including Shepard Fairey and JonOne.
The new bottle design by Vhils was launched alongside his five-metre Yvonne Chaka Chaka tribute street art piece situated beside the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Maboneng. The wall underwent a complete facelift and the former colonial settler Jan van Riebeeck’s image was replaced by the new Vhils portrait.
While many street art pieces carry historical and political sentiment, the Yvonne Chaka Chaka piece is a celebration of legendary singer, humanitarian and activist Yvonne Chaka Chaka.
“I did a lot of research into the person I wanted to feature in my portrait,” said Vhils. “Not only do I respect Yvonne Chaka Chaka as an artist, I honour her as a humanitarian and a leader. I’m honoured and very glad that I was able to do the wall,” Vhils said.
Yvonne Chaka Chaka, who attended the reveal of her portrait, was proud to have been chosen as the subject of Vhil’s talents. Hand in hand, Vhils and Yvonne expressed their hope that the portrait would not only captivate every person who gazed upon it, but that it would inspire a community, and uplift a city.
“It is an amazing project and I’m grateful and humbled to be a part of it. I hope it inspires good change,” said Yvonne Chaka Chaka.
Yvonne Chaka Chaka at Maboneng
If you want to visit the new Yvonne Chaka Chaka portrait by Vhils in Maboneng, the wall can be found in Albrecht Street, beside the old Cosmopolitan Hotel and across the road from the Hazard Art Gallery.
While you're there, check out the surrounding street cafés that have popped up. We highly recommend Blackanese and Chalk Board café.