A book in Catherine J. Howard’s youth took her imagination to South Africa.
“Mark Mathabane, author of ‘Kaffir Boy,’ lived in Kernersville where I grew up, so I was introduced early on in school to the parallel between the apartheid struggles in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the American South,” said Howard, who lives in Durham.
As an adult, Howard was determined to make the actual journey to this land, almost 7,900 miles from North Carolina. So when she learned about the international artist in residency program A Word of Art, she applied and got to spend this past March and April in Cape Town.
“I chose this residency because it is community oriented,” Howard said. “The whole point is to work with the community and do public art in it. I worked in Khayelitsha Township, an informal community of mostly shacks. People were very warm and welcoming. I was the only white person there every time I went.”
This Friday, from 6 to 10 p.m., and this Saturday, from noon to 4 p.m., everyone is invited to Howard’s pop-up exhibit “Bring It Home,” created as a result of her sojourn. The exhibit, at 320 W. Chapel Hill St. (the building is under renovation), features two series, “I know ’em so well I tell ’em with my eyes closed,” and “Bring It Home.” Each is composed of individual drawings done in markers, acrylic paints and pens.
“I know ’em” has 29 drawings all made in Cape Town and “Bring It Home” has 21 that were done after Howard’s return.
“All of the drawings bleed into each other,” Howard said. “The piece does not make sense unless they are together. Almost like a puzzle.”
The media she uses in the individual pieces are not only different but her bases are also varied— canvas, polyester, linen, and construction paper.
“Each absorbs material in different ways and is symbolic of how we each, even in the same community, react differently to the same circumstances. But we are all needed for the puzzle. We all have to fit into our community in order for it to be what it is.”
The pieces done in Cape Town strive to share what Howard experienced as she integrated herself into a foreign community so she felt comfortable and those around her felt comfortable with her.
“I had more culture shock coming home, though, than going,” she said. “It was hardest moving from an area where food, running water and electricity are not a guarantee and people are so communal. You give an extra piece of bread to your neighbor who doesn’t have one.”
She returned to a land of plenty and a land of isolation, where as she pointed out we make appointments to get together.
“It felt surreal in a lot of ways,” she said. In South Africa, Howard made friends she calls family. “I feel like I changed into a different person. I came home in the same body, but my brain is not the same. But people greet you as if you are the same.”
Howard spent six weeks in Cape Town working with boys at the Percy Bartley House in Khayelitsha Township teaching art classes. On he last day, she and six boys created a mural in a nearby, burnt-out structure. They spent the two days prior to painting removing trash, and raking the ground.
“The boys were always lighthearted,” she said. “It is fun to have someone challenge you. The mural ended up being a house with a big tree and a swing outside. The sky was tons of different patterns. It made that space feel like a home.” Pop-up show
A brief explanation of what a pop-up show is: Typically the artist coordinates it and it occurs in a space that normally does not exhibit artwork, such as an abandoned building. It is short and informally organized. Howard coordinated a pop-up show at the Percy Bartley House with the boys and her drawings.
“We did it to promote the house and get to meet people in the community,” she said. “They were so proud. They had worked so hard to do the art and then to have people come and appreciate and encourage them was really important. I think it solidified the power of artwork for them.”
Howard’s students greatly affected her, as did the street artists also in Cape Town for residencies. “The street artists feel no ties to their artwork. They believe it is not about you but the people that see it. That is the whole point. I really internalized this while I was there,” Howard said.
As a result of this transformative experience, the 50 individual pieces of her installations have no prices but are for sale. “Everyone needs to feel like they can bring artwork home so they may donate what they feel is appropriate. If someone is living at poverty level and can spare 25 cents, I want them to have it. Or if a wealthy entrepreneur comes in and can afford $500, that is great,” Howard said. There is a limit of one drawing per person and pieces will be available for pick-up after the exhibition.
While in Cape Town, Howard also created two sketchbooks that will be for sale. Howard said “A Warm Space” concerns what she saw as a white woman. “There were some uncomfortable sexual harassment type moments and I needed space to talk about that and also the assumption that I was part of the upper, white class,” Howard said. The other sketchbook, “New Home: Observations from Khayelitsha,” tells the story of her social advocacy and is much more objective. “They are about two different paths. I enjoyed that.”
One thing that has not changed for Howard but that was reinforced by her South African experience is that there is something amazing that happens when people, such as herself, who don’t always feel comfortable expressing their thoughts realize that art they create can do it for them.
Howard said, “It gives them more freedom to know that they have a voice in the world.”