The art and heart
of a Joburg migrant artist

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Migration is not always a story of hopelessness. In the pursuit of the 'South African Dream', some immigrants discover true purpose and camaraderie in what sets their soul on fire. Obusitswe Seage is a one of them.

By Karen Mwendera, Heggar Mawiza, Paulo Mendes, Zanji Valerie Sinkala and Goodhope Praygod Amani

On a hot Wednesday morning in South Africa’s city of gold, an old neighbourhood known as Orange Grove starts to come alive. It was once known as “Little Italy” and the old buildings can attest to that. The area was home to legends such as musician Brenda Fassie and Indian activist Mahatma Ghandi. But now it is home to a street artist eager to bring arts and culture to the fore front.

At the corner of 9th street and Lousie Botha Avenue lies one of the oldest establishments in the town; the Radium Beer hall. Next to it, a tall perky man with a peculiar dress code playing a djembe drum sits ready to welcome the new day. His name is Obusistswe Seage, a 33 year-old Botswanan national who is a street artist and performer. His friends call him Obi.

The Radium Beer Hall is the one place where artists in Orange Grove find refuge has been standing since 1929.

“Hello mama Africa, how are you? I’m feeling fine and I hope you’re fine, too,” he sings bringing rhythm to the dull streets of Orange grove. His attire is adorned with colours of red; a red shirt, red shoe laces and red accessories; one of which is a red flower kept in his dreadlocked hair. He calls it his nature satellite to connect and feel the pulse of nature.

Hello mama Africa, how are you? I’m feeling fine and I hope you’re fine, too »
Obusitswe "Obi" Seage
Mother Nature, well appreciated and always there to keep the day going. The flower, acts as the native satellite to connect and feel the pulse of nature.

“There’s a colour theme to every day. Some days you feeling purple, sometimes yellow mellow, sometimes you feeling blue. Sometimes you feeling like being on the scene and making green green. So it just depends on your mood. I’m feeling red and fiery today,” he says.

He walks around the town giving a tour. Everyone he passes is cheerfully greeted by him. Everyone knows Obi, and Obi knows everyone. It is home for him. He dreams of making it big in the arts and culture world but for now he is trying to make art big in this small town of Orange Grove.

When we meet him, he gives out his business card. Something he travels with everywhere in hope that it may one day land in the hands of someone who may take his career to another level.

At about 10a.m, the Radium Beer Hall opens for business. It is one of the oldest surviving grills and pubs in Johannesburg which welcomed jazzmen and artists of all kinds. It is also the spot where Obi and his friends perform.

“I love to perform here so much. l feel that this is where l am accepted and welcomed whole heartedly”, Obi said.

It is a comedy play based on a play by Aristophanes, a comic playwright of ancient Athens. “If anything, art is more about Alchemy than passion,” Taub says dressed in a faded shirt written ‘I love Joburg’. “Passion itself isn’t enough. Undoubtedly it is an element, but not the only one. The difficulty is that we don’t know what we are doing. We are just consuming or taking other people’s ideas, forms, shapes and desires.

At the entrance Obi meets some of his friends who are other local artists. Among them is Obi’s long-time friend and mentor, Dr. Myer Taub. With a handshake and a hug, the two converse in brief conversation with laughs. They all make their way into the bar.

It is dark inside with just enough light to shine on the liquor bottle while a grey cat marks its territory waging its tail on top of the bar counter. The furniture is covered in old wood and vintage artefacts.

The bar leads up to a rooftop which tells the old tale of the Orange Grove town showing a view of its buildings and horizon. The old theatre, market place, bakery and Forrestal centre (a recreational spot) can be seen.

Obi and his friends make themselves comfortable and sit in a circle telling jokes and conversing. Taub who leads the pack has been passionate about developing young artists like Obi for a very long time. He is a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand and has been living in Johannesburg for over 10 years.

A few years back, Taub met Obi through a mutual artistic friend. Obi was trying to pitch his writing to Taub and the two immediately hit it off. Taub introduced Obi to the theatre arts and they worked on a play called Birds of the Grove inspired by the name of the town and Johannesburg’s large indigenous ecosystem.

Art is more about Alchemy than passion.»
Dr. Taub

About 10 km away from the old town of Orange Grove there is another old town in Johannesburg called Maboneng. But unlike Orange Grove, it has been touched with gentrification and is now a thriving part of Johannesburg’s art scene. It is often referred to as the heart and essence of the City of Johannesburg.

It is home to many arts and crafts street vendors, rooftop bars, cafes and art galleries. Urbanization has grown this town and has resulted in it becoming a melting pot of different cultures. Many artists come here in hope to show case their art to their world. Obi is one of them.

For artists there is much competition in this area and since its gentrification, many natives have been pushed out of the community to make way for the new, green sceneries and “cool” aesthetics.

On a Thursday morning, he plays his drum on Fox Street near the popular Market on Main venue which is buzzing with tourists and hipsters on the weekends. But unlike Orange Grove, everyone doesn’t know Obi, and Obi doesn’t know everyone.

Obi’s favourite place to perform is in Maboneng, a popular spot for many artists.

During his performance, Obi is delighted to meet a familiar face, a photographer known as Sandile Mdlalose. He works for a company called I was shot in joburg, an arts and crafts brand which combines photography with T-shirts, bags and home décor. Luckily for him his artwork is sold in a store in Maboneng to tourists, businesses and organisations even in Europe. Mdlalose is one of the few artists to make a constant stream of income because of the I was shot in Joburg platform, the artist collective he is part of.

Nondumiso Sithole can attest to this. Sithole works as a community development manager at the Johannesburg Theatre. It is one of the biggest platforms monetizing the expressions of art and theatre in Johannesburg. She migrated from the Eastern Cape to further her studies in the city of Johannesburg. After her studies she settled in the big city working at the theatre since 2008. Since then, she never looked back. However, this big city with bright lights is a place she does not consider home.

“I don’t think Joburg can ever be home for anyone because we all hold on to our childhood memories of growing up with family structures. Joburg will never be home for me, but maybe my kids, because they’re creating their own memories,” she says.

It all started in 2009 with the aim of empowering and giving a voice to underprivileged kids to use photography to change perceptions of Johannesburg. Whilst living in a shelter, Mdlalose was scouted by the founder Benard Viljoen, to be one of the main photographers. Now he earns a living by documenting the environment he lives in in a positive light and selling it to the world through Maboneng, a Joburg’s artist’s utopian market place.

Later in the day, Obi meets with a friend of his who is a street guitarist. They have planned to put on a performance for us at one of Maboneng’s popular rooftop spots known as the Living Room. It is a vibrant naturist spot with a skyline view of its gentrified buildings. However, they aren’t welcome. The security guards are hesitant to let him in. The bartenders do not recognize him. Playing here is not permissible without having made an arrangement with the owner.

The two now turn back, discouraged. Art expression is not free in this part of town. In order to survive here, your art must be sold. For many independent artists such as Obi, they have to search for the daily bread one street at a time.

During the interview he proudly holds up a canvas with the first photograph he captured. It is a shot of the notorious Ponte tower from Hillbrow. “When you look at our pictures you still see a little bit of bad but you don’t see like the dirt, the crime. You see Joburg for what it is- the Joburg the way we see it,” he tells us.

“We just don’t take photographs for the sake of taking but to tell a story and make a positive impact from the photograph you see.” – Sandile
Obi shares a warm embrace with Nondumiso, the one person who never gave up on him.

A year later she met Obi who approached her for ideas on how to fund his art. “I get a lot of young people who come to my space wanting to see how to get involved in new development programs.” She says. “So I was one of those who came knocking to talk about how I could possibly plug in,” says Obi reminiscing about the day, “We wanted to see how we could take industrial theatre into fourth world theatre.”

In 2014, Stats SA revealed that South Africa’s creative economy contributed over R90.5bn to the national economy or 2.9% of the GDP in 2013 to 2014. Since then, the industry has most likely grown. However, many like Obi still struggle to make ends meet.

Part of that naked soul is the long wall in the park filled with graffiti and artistic expressions drawn from the time they worked on the Birds of the Grove play with Dr Taub. Each artwork was contributed by the different team members from the play from “all different walks and flocks”. They all feel proud to tell their story on what they did.

Sithole’s dream, nonetheless, is to see the arts and culture scene in the city growing and more artists like Obi being given the opportunity to make money out of their love. She hugs Obi goodbye and wishes him well, not knowing when next they will meet.

Back in Orange Grove the optimistic Obi shows us one his favourite spots. It is a sanctuary where Obi feels welcomed and safe away from the concrete jungles in the money making city. It is called Short Road Park and offers solace, peace and tranquillity. Despite having migrated from Botswana he still finds this old, ungentrified town home.

“Welcome to Nubi Kookollia, the kingdom of the king of the birds!” shouts Obi. He is dressed like a bird with props made from house hold items; a beak made of a plastic container, feathers made from a feather duster and wings made from spread out broken blinds. He wears green glasses and still has his signature nature satellite flower in his hair. He runs around the park re-enacting scenes from the play.

“There’s a sensitive part of why an exodus happens just beyond the urbanization. We’re running away from new things,” he says. “Because when an artist is doing his work, it’s not work. It’s actually mediation. That moment that person is spilling the beans on their soul. They’re basically getting naked, they’re giving you their naked soul,” he says.

Welcome to Nubi Kookollia, the kingdom of the king of the birds!»

“Obi is quite wonderful… I think the thing about him is the surprise of who he is. I think the challenges in the Bird of the Grove were quite radical and difficult, so to see someone like Obi handle that was quite amazing,” Taub says about Obi’s performance during the play.

I think the thing about Obi is the surprise in what he is.»

During the re-inaction, Obi’s friends all gather together in a circle while he leads the activities. “Wings up, wings down, wings up, wings down,” Obi commands as all his friends follow after him, “It is us birds who can teach man about how to live. Free from doubt, free from limitation and free from scarcity. I get all that I need from Nubikookoolia and her fine scene… so join me!” he says.

They applause cheerfully as Obi ends his monologue. Just as the phrase, Obi can be likened to the bird he acts as. He embodies the qualities of a bird, and the world in which he flies in is his platform even in the not so gentrified parts of Johannesburg. Come money or none, Obi’s quest for artistic expression transcends what money could even buy.

Just like Brenda Fassie and Mahatma Gandhi, he has greatness in his own way.

Johannesburg has offered a place of solace for migrant artists like him, although he is still trying to make a name for himself there. The arrival city comprising of two playgrounds for an artist, one like the gentrified Maboneng and the old town of Orange Grove, are places Obi calls home. After all, it is still part of the Mama Africa he greets in his song.