Siphiwe Ngwenya

​The Curator:

Words: Roger Young
Photography: Sydelle Willow Smith

Cape Town as World Design Capital 2014 has focused attention on designers of all stripes. But not all design is flashy, or even visible. The Red Bulletin meets six Mother City brains who are re-imagining how the city sees itself.

Tension breeds creativity, and Cape Town does not lack for tension with the most expensive real estate in Africa squeezed between picturesque mountains and pristine beaches, a vibrant emerging pan-African community, a dominant creole-Malay Muslim culture, hipster creative industries, and low-income ghettoes that encircle the city, themselves a poisonous legacy of political spatial design. When Cape Town was named World Design Capital 2014, the function of design itself was thrown into question. But many of the contradictions highlighted by the award were already being focused on by Cape Town’s brightest re-thinkers: designers who see contradictions as an opportunity for re-imagination, a chance for the city to create a new way of experiencing the world. 

The Red Bulletin meets six Mother City brains who are re-imagining how the city sees itself.

First up: The curator Siphiwe Ngwenya 

Siphiwe Ngwenya is soft spoken and unassuming, a Clarke Kent exterior  to the Superman vision in his mind that sees a future without townships, and a present where design can be harnessed to bring that future into being. To Ngwenya, townships are spaces of innovation and possibility, and a means to map out and find alternative approaches to, well, just about anything.  He believes that through our actions as individuals everyone should play a role in making our societies, whether in townships or not, a better place for future generations. 

“When I see townships, I see progress that can be achieved. There is a lot to be done and we have to do it one home at a time.”

 He is constantly working on creating ways in which township communities can develop into hubs of education and growth. His Turning Homes into Innovation Labs is a pilot project which is intended to encourage a community in Gugulethu NY147 to learn by experimenting. 

A community of home-owners implement and advocate sustainable innovations in their homes such as recycling, organic gardening, safe and energy-efficient stoves and lighting, waste management systems, as well as initiatives such as beading and crafts. 

The idea stems from the Maboneng Township Arts Experience that converts township homes into art galleries. “The project is important to the community because it creates ownership amongst the homeowners,” says Ngwenya. “It brings the creative economy to the doorstep of the people who really need it.” With initiatives like the Better Living Challenge encouraging outside designers to come up with solutions to improve low-income living, THIIL could provide an ideal testing ground. 

Home Innovation Labs provides a network that helps participants find the information, support or resources they need. Those involved say it has brought a sense of excitement and community to them, especially for the women who have embraced the idea and work towards creating awareness and changing habits. It’s not so much an actual curation process as an organic growth as homeowners adopt what they feel most comfortable with. The homes then become a living exhibition space demonstrating ideas, technology and products that support affordable and sustainable township living.

Ngwenya is a busy man. Apart from Home Innovation Labs and Maboneng Township Arts Experience, he is also founder and former member of renowned hip-hop group Skwatta Kamp, and a fine artist. His works include the design and installation of four-storey steel installations at the Raphael Hotel in Sandton and Bree Street taxi rank in the Johannesburg CBD. And if that wasn’t enough, in 2008 he built, deployed and tested a mobile living station, powered completely by renewable energy, in Antarctica.

Ngwenya and fellow Red Bull Amaphiko Academy alumni Theo Ndindwa have also been greenlighted by Stellenbosch Municipality to develop an arts and dance route – modelled on the area’s many wine routes – in the bustling Kayamandi township. The Stellenbosch project hopes to change the way people see townships dwellers. “It is possible,” says Ngwenya, “to transform the townships into hotspots of design-centred thinking.”

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12 2014 The Red Bulletin

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