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This exhibition marks what may only be described as the escalation of a particular understanding of the socially, politically and artistically significant suburb of Athlone in the Western Cape of South Africa.  Embracing this understanding (not as yet definitive) has serious implications for the study and practice of imagination, which this exhibition attests to. An understanding of the productivity of “thinking” Athlone requires this collective effort, and not a solitary endeavour so as to ensure complicated, careful, and even dissenting views. The exhibition ‘Athlone in Mind’ thus charged leading thinkers and figures involved in highly diverse artistic practices with the task of creating artworks that offer the viewer an intentionally composite lens for use when thinking Athlone: Berni Searle gifts viewers with a video projection titled “As the crow flies” that invokes the cinematic procedure in new and exciting ways, literally taking Athlone as the point of departure for her narrative about class and equality in relation to questions of mobility. Husan and Husain Essop offer large-format, high-resolution photographs that both fix and disrupt our view of those who traverse Athlone on a daily basis, staged in both day and night scenes. Zyma Amien confounds our understanding of Athlone as terra firma by using a large, suspended sculpture that floats above the ground comprised of carefully crafted cement paving slabs moulded from parquet flooring taken by people from the homes from which they were forcibly removed.  These form a walkway that is not possible to physically traverse, yet which remains inviting and even beautiful, as if seen in a dream. This could, of course, be read as both a pleasant dream or a disturbing one, a dream, perhaps, of a sentimental resident who recalls a path home, on the one hand, or one forced to live in this suburb due to racial segregation and who retains a sense of displacement, on the other. Kemang Wa Lehulere authorises a variety of found objects as meditations that quietly question the distribution of the sensible in Cape Town and unresolved human traumas that often pass without any public legacy. His combination of used school desks sourced from the Athlone area and his plaster casts of human bones offer more than enough clues to support my proposition. Dathini Mzayiya takes schools and the question of the subject of schooling as the basis for the aesthetic world he creates for this exhibition. It is important to note that in reproducing the works and the processes of the commissioned artists in the photographs that follow, we have been conscious not to control the readers’ reception by imposing captions, titles, or dimensions prematurely. Instead, we encourage the flow of images as they create enigmatic impressions that will be fully realized in the presence of the works themselves.  


In addition to the artists that have been specially commissioned to create work relating to the suburb of Athlone, Jane Alexander is the designated festival artist for the 2017 consortium events and conference. Alexander’s work is made available specifically for delegates in the form of installations strategically placed in the Old Stable venue, alongside the meeting rooms where participants will pause on a daily basis. The works were selected to directly provoke those who wish to take seriously the question of aesthetics and the study of Humanities at the site of the university. We are privileged to have the work of Alexander in such intimate proximity, and trust in the productive transfusion between these works and the individuals who will no doubt be detained by their potency.


Curatorial challenges


There are many critiques that could potentially emerge when curating an exhibition related to the culturally and politically loaded space of Athlone. The temptation in the face of immanent critique is thus to become a custodian of sorts, being careful to place historical moments and authentic artefacts at the fore of the discussion about Athlone – a relatively straightforward and even didactic approach. Despite the security this mode of curating may offer, the intellectual approach I have invested in (through the selection of artists and their commissioned works) is the idea that beyond the map of geographic points of reference, or a particular social geography of Athlone, we find a moment that refuses the meter of sorrow that this place could potentially invite in favour of the power of production and translation inherent in the creative process of art making. It is thus the art produced by the artists selected that offer the route to an intellectual warrant for asserting new ways of thinking about Athlone.

Certain artists featured in this exhibition know Athlone intimately; others have spent less time in the place. There is no contradiction here. Rather, this grouping of artists and their powerful productions underscore an understanding of the art object as the ancient envoy of the desire to both delineate and dream space.

In this regard, William Carlos Williams reminds us that “there are no ideas but in things” (Williams, 1992). The artworks here are thus crucial in an unfolding of Athlone not as a destination, but as a field of unsettled and imbricated thoughts that allow for conceptions, prejudices and hasty estimations given from the segregated past about this place to give way to extended periods of reflection on the artworks that, in this manner, assist with the “revolt that is study”, a skillful formulation offered by Adam Sitze in his own writing on Athlone (2016).

The allocation for this exhibition – the old Recruitment Office at the Castle of Good Hope – is not insignificant to the conceptualising of this project. The title of the venue suggests that space has a legacy involved in the formal invitation to individuals from the public to embark on a new vocation of military service that would be administrated within the room and see them emerge with a new status – that of soldier. This is no longer the case today, but the enigmatic idea of inviting individuals from the public to participate in an exercise performed in the said venue that leaves them changed in some invisible but important way upon their exit remains unchanged.

Technology systems in the exhibition


‘Athlone in Mind’ features the most advanced complementary technologies available today. These technologies offer a variety of outcomes that I will briefly describe below so as to assist in the dissemination of knowledge.


The exhibition deploys a number of i-beacon transmitters, able to circulate the website and catalogue created for this exhibition to all who are in possession of a smartphone. I-beacons are small battery-powered sensor devices that wirelessly communicate and transmit data to apps on mobile devices using Bluetooth technology. The mobile device is triggered to display content: video, voice, images and music emanating from the exhibition and the events that support the conference. Thus viewers at the Castle will be able to immerse themselves in a self-service multimedia experience that is relevant to what they are looking at and to access information that they are able to store well beyond the three-day event.


Crucially, the i-beacon transmitters will be placed at sites in Athlone, Langa and Gugulethu in the form of downloadable scholarly and creative work. In this sense, the beacons offer a digital bridge to the exhibition and the proceedings the conference enables. This is the first occasion where this technology has been deployed in such an intellectually apposite way, literally bringing the exhibition and conference proceedings to the door of the very place the exhibition takes as the object of study.


Other bespoke technological features created for this exhibition include augmented reality applications, allowing selected video clips of the artists talking about their creative processes to appear on smartphones when positioned near certain images in the exhibition catalogue. This, in effect, allows for a constant walking tour of the exhibition that is navigated by paging through the catalogue. This is known as non-marker tracking, and creates an intimate experience between the viewer and the catalogue images. 




The success of this exhibition must certainly not be based on any register of attendance or coverage from the media. It will be gauged, in the most productive way, as a critical conversation that seeks no abatement. The intellectual imprint left on those who view the exhibition is one that will, in the most positive scenario, continue to grow more pronounced as time passes. As the famous Athlone cooling towers  that are illustrated in the corners of the pages of this catalogue display in a carefully orchestrated object lesson: the destiny of imaginary structures is that they will continue to rise.





Sitze, A., 2016. Between Study and Revolt. In: Safundi. 17. 3, 271-295


Williams, W.C., 1992. Paterson. Revised edition by MacGowan, C. New York: New Directions. 

 Curatorial notes by Kurt Campbell 

This essay reflects on the relationship between place, imagination and thought to envisage the making of a post-apartheid city on differently constellated terms than those through which it is currently. To hold ‘Athlone in Mind’ is to grasp the challenge of exploring new ways of imagining the relationship between the arts and place, and between memory and the unsettled question of the future. The imprecise contours of a city to come, or yet to be remade, informs the exhibition and essays in this collection. Here, Athlone is envisaged not as a destination but as a question.


Much of the past and current critique of the city – its new modes of eviction, forced removals, gentrification, elisions of slavery and indentured labour which mark its architectural and topographical inscriptions – are rightly concerned with the very areas from which people were evicted and coercively moved: the areas around the city and suburbs that came to be made white. The townships of the Cape Flats, on the other hand, become legible to discursive mythologies on the city either during protests, strikes, and uprisings or as spaces of underdevelopment and sites of lack (Witz, 2012). Little is said, much less mythologized, of areas like Athlone, Gugulethu and Langa as being spaces of thought and thoughtfulness in which intellectual work, art making, ideas, dreams, creative expression and alternative modes of political organising converge with a notion of communitas (Esposito, 2010).


Between fascination and enchantment, and repulsion and loathing, the idea of Cape Town is often book-ended between an emergent, poignantly cosmopolitan oceanic discourse on Cape Town as a port city and slave city (Hofmeyer, Duphelia-Mesthrie & Kaarsholm, 2016) and a renewed, updated and necessary critique of Cape Town as a divided and “garrisoned city” (Pinnock, 1989; Western, 1996; Pieterse, 2010). In this, the place of Athlone – both as question and as destination – stands uneasily. As it must. Athlone, approached as a question, bridges both discursive terrains which open and critique the spatial logic of Cape Town. To approach Athlone as a question, as this exhibition and book suggest, is to open imaginative spaces from which to inquire into the relationship between art and politics that exceeds the diagnostic terrain and conditions of history that have shaped it. 


It is necessary, then, to excavate the newer global neoliberal administrative forms of racial and spatial segregation, exclusion, and dispossession that have shaped the city (Pieterse, 2010). Particularly as these have arisen out of the shared historical conjucture in which the defeat of legal apartheid and transition to democracy in South Africa, and the global rise of post-Cold War neoliberalism, have emerged; with both processes shaping, informing and being expressed through the other. Yet here additional care is also necessary. For in rehearsing this diagnosis of the divided city – which should be neither denied nor disavowed – we may find ourselves caught circumscribing other horizons of possibility, trapping ourselves in a relentless loop of melancholia. In order to imagine our way out of the logic of racially and hierarchically partitioned and socially regulated space, the arts can shift the terms of place as currently constellated. This would mean holding place “in mind” in such a way as to refuse the naturalised claims of place to community and vice versa (code for the designation of populations) and to ground egalitarian and emancipatory forms of making life that avow communitas and to which art making bears the trace and much more. 


Athlone has a number of productions and points of departure. Over the twentieth century, Athlone became an important hub: a space where commerce and trade, travel and study, political resistance and cultural production of the townships of the Cape Flats converged and flourished. In many ways, these dynamic convergences were enabled by Athlone’s physical location, a kind of portal connecting Cape Town’s suburbs and the townships of the Cape Flats. In the 1970s and 80s, these were also enabled by personal, artistic, intellectual and political relations between artists, intellectuals and activists in Athlone, Guguletu and Langa. Over the past years, Athlone has come to stand as a proper name for debates, discussions and intellectual experiments at the Centre for Humanities Research. 


In 2015, these experiments culminated in the establishment of an arts education initiative, The Factory of the Arts, which has brought artists in residence together from across a wide array of creative disciplines – from music, theatre, visual and photographic arts to puppetry – enabling a spirit of collaborative experimentation across disciplines and genres. Catalysed by inquiries into the itineraries of thinking and arts practices raised by the idea of Athlone, the Factory of the Arts has sought to better understand and intervene in the social and spatial dynamics of the city and in the distributions of artistic practices. It is an experiment in aesthetic education, arts practices, politics and humanistic study that re-imagines the spatial relations of the city and beyond. Working with schools on the Cape Flats such as the Chris Hani School for Art and Culture and Luhlaza Secondary School, the Handspring Puppetry Trust, and rural community arts initiative, Net vir Pret in the townships of Barrydale, the Factory of the Arts has approached the question of re-activating arts education in the city as an initiative that considers the question of spatiality in arts education as central to the reconfiguration of relations of space and perspectives of distance to proximity and access.


In the exhibition and essays in this book catalogue, these experiments underscore the role of artistic practice to think place and its productions in ways that exceed and undo apartheid’s spatial formations, epochal markers and historical emplotments. Premesh Lalu’s republished essay in this book offers another take in which Athlone is the proper name under which cinema and jazz chart a space of thought that opens memory, duration, time and the anti-apartheid struggle towards a more open horizon of possibilities. His essay would suggest that in breaching the limits of the critique of apartheid and, by extension, the critique of the postapartheid, jazz music and “the cinematic” offer a way to think out of the dichotomy in which the past is figured mainly as atrocity and the future fixed as apocalypse. 


Significantly, by the late 1990s, despite existing as part of the social and embodied experiences of the majority of Cape Town’s citizens, ideas that had been experiments in imagining what may have been created together after apartheid had been dismantled were being elided in the new public narratives of the past despite having emerged from intellectual, artistic, cultural and political imaginings forged in places like Athlone, Langa, Nyanga and Gugulethu. 


These were also produced under stress and duress, surfacing the many tensions that constitute thinking in times of political and social crisis. A seminar paper presented in 2014 by Adam Sitze (Sitze, 2016) at the Centre for Humanities Research called “Between Study and Revolt” revisited the student protests of the 1980s and took these tensions as both instructive and productive, excavating them through a close reading of Richard Rive’s novel Emergency Continued. In the context of the student struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, political ideas emanating from the Black Consciousness movement as well as from debates on non-racialism were as much experiments in enactment (action) and practice, and in various kinds of cross-overs as they were ideas imagined, produced, contested and debated. Traced through intellectuals, artists and political thinkers from the townships of the Cape Flats, such conceptions of place inflected the production and practice of ideas of freedom (Lalu, 2017). 


In 2015, Michail Rassool took up an archival research fellowship in order to gather documents and memorabilia and to do filmed interviews with artists, cultural workers and figures associated with the arts scene in Athlone in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Rassool’s research on Athlone and marginalised sites of creativity and arts production forms the basis for his essay on Athlone as a “journey of the sensible” in this collection. In the late 1990s, the terms by which I understood the temporal vectors of memory in relation to political transition and everyday life in the city were re-shaped following one of my first encounters with Athlone. I recall that encounter in what follows. But my thinking on Athlone has subsequently shifted. Through the longer genealogy of this project, I have come to imagine Athlone as an idea of a place, a place of ideas, and as a place-holding term to rethink the relationship between art, thought and politics. 


In 1999 I had just become involved with a small civil initiative, then called Western Cape Action Tours, later the Direct Action Centre for Peace and Memory1. The initiative, established by former guerrillas of the liberation movement, was one that engaged the public production of space through an experiment in physical movement, narration, dialogue, performative “plaqueing” and social pedagogy. The action tours did, in fact, engage the longue durée of the making of Cape Town as a port city, a colonial city, a slave city, an apartheid city and a global neoliberal post-apartheid city to examine various civil, social and political resistance struggles that were already being elided from the nascent public histories of the “new nation”. Nonetheless, the action tours immersed participants in the topographic accretions that have made, shifted and remade the city in ways that were neither historically linear, temporally discrete nor spatially deterministic. A complex and often invented or improvisational quality was introduced into the action tour through interactions between narrators, participants, and the inevitable passers-by who would intervene, stop, listen, and speak in relation to the collective place-marking in public at each site stop. 


In 1999, the encounter with Athlone that was instructive for my own inquiries into the question of deferral and historical erasure was in front of the public toilets in the Athlone central business district, across the way from the police station and magistrate’s court where, on July 23, a decade earlier, the bodies of two young Umkhonto we Sizwe operatives, Robert Waterwitch and Coline Williams, were found. On that day in 1999, Robbie Waterwitch’s uncle, Gerard Waterwitch, joined our group as the action tour narrators gave an account of the deeply contested circumstances around the murder of the two young anti-apartheid activists. They presented the apartheid state’s version, the inconclusive findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s investigation, and the informal versions debated amongst cadres and comrades. Gerard Waterwitch also spoke at the public toilets, emphasising the importance of reinvigorating the ideas and hopes for which his nephew had lived and had been killed. Curious pedestrians drew close to hear these accounts which, taken together, remained very much in the register of political struggle, death and atrocity.

Later in the morning, we walked down Thornton Road, turning right near the mini-market and down the side street to stop in front of Robert Waterwitch’s house. Gerard Waterwitch had gone into the house rejoining us on the street. He brought with him a framed photograph of Robert Waterwitch as a younger teenager, smiling and playing guitar. The tone of speech shifted as did the register. I was struck by how in beholding the image of Robert Waterwitch in front of his family home, his life came into view. And with that, his life connected to a wider network of social and family relations. He had been killed so close to his house, after all, in the same area where he grew up, where he had socialised, loved, and played guitar. This sense of a life was evoked through seeing the framed image, a photograph, a writing of light. Such an apprehension of his life, of his future curtailed, contrasted sharply with the narrative of his murder outside the public toilets where it seemed that Robert Waterwitch’s life had been replaced by the political posterity of his death. It is not a coincidence that the photographic image of Robert Waterwitch smiling with his guitar prompted me to rethink the possibilities for memory to respond to an idea of possible futures, even ones foreclosed. Rather than for memory to become immured in an episodic notion of time past that may be recalled in contested ways, it may well remain available for all kinds of other politically instrumentalist narratives. Athlone became the space through which I came to understand the importance of imagining a civil discourse of life for a future. In Cape Town this is a difficult necessity. 


So if the question of Athlone is viewed as a place-holder for the idea of place produced through the arts, it is a question despite and because of the implication of place-ness in the hierarchical mythologies of ethnic/racial/cultural formations of belonging. Despite and because of the looping soundtracks replaying narratives of lives against cartographic coordinates, mapping these to habits of body, social comportment, and expressive repertoires, the challenge to holding Athlone in mind is redoubled. What does it mean then to hold a place in mind? In contrast to a certain nostalgia that would be evoked were this exhibition and book titled ‘Athlone on my Mind’, ‘Athlone in Mind’ suggests a different orientation. One that Lindelwa Dalamba unfolds in her essay as she prises open a glimpse of the rather different aesthetic imagination of jazz in counterpoint to the discursive production of music making usually mapped to Athlone.


In the long administrative night of South Africa’s incremental dispossessions, the material and psychic energies that must be summonsed to remake home and to renegotiate place are so many acts of survival, defiance and love. And, of course, imagination. Through the figure of her family’s garden, Gabeba Baderoon suggests that aesthetic remaking of place connects the sensual and the sensory to memory and loss through an imagination of geological time, of arboreal time. This would evoke a longer and more durational arc to imagine past and future. In this imagining there are beginnings and endings, but no origins. So whilst, by implication, land, terrain, ground, and home return to us as questions fiercely inflected by the political, and increasingly by the ecological, they gather an ethical and metaphorical force that oblige us to imagine a concept of the future commensurate with the care, attention, effort and patience given to making such a garden. 


In other writings, the failure to recognise the question of place as one that constitutes the process of becoming, of living – not as a backdrop to being or a context for narrative – suggests that the imagination is also conditioned by the freighted accumulation of political, historical or social scripts of place. An exemplary scene is found in Mtutuzeli Matshoba’s short story “Pilgrimage to the Isle of Makana” in his collection, Call Me Not a Man. The narrator, the pilgrim of the story, arrives in the Cape from Johannesburg after a journey filled with all of the detours, tests and turns that characterise the way of the pilgrimage. He has permission to visit his brother, a political prisoner at Robben Island. Arriving at the station in Cape Town, the narrator is met by people who drive him to his lodgings in Langa. He strains to catch a glimpse of the island during the drive. And when he glimpses it, he cannot see the island, the destination of his pilgrimage, despite how largely it loomed in the anti-apartheid imagination, how determined it was by its position as historical subject of resistance and banishment. In Matshoba’s story, its contours cannot be grasped. So whilst the island, “that black patch on the sea’s horizon”, is pointed out to the narrator, it falls out of view as soon as he looks, and he keeps searching for it as they drive along the road beside the shifting ocean (1979, p. 113): “I was about to take off in my imagination to the Isle when it dipped out of sight”. What does this failure of imagination represent to the idea of holding Athlone “in mind”? Perhaps it points to the risk of failure to fully perceive or imagine place that exceeds the political, national, cultural scripts projected onto it, or the challenge to render legible something of place that escape all these. 


Perhaps too, this is why Ashraf Jamaal’s strangely neglected novel, Love Themes for the Wilderness, set in the mid-nineties, deploys the work of art making to read, narrate and queer the interstitial spaces of the city. This was, after all, a time when new narratives that rhymed with “new nation” were ascending in increasingly monolithic ways, fixing the stakes of the spatial imaginaries that characterise the city. Perhaps too, the prose so finely attuned to the process of art making, brings together image and imagination in a more “cross-over” and provisional way. In its narration of the work of art making alongside the work of queering the subject (a powerful theme of the text) at a time of political transition, Jamaal’s novel could be read as a prising open of the concept of “transitioning” to explore fluidity as political and aesthetic possibilities for life and thought. 


The curator and artistic director of this project, Kurt Campbell, invited commissioned artists Zyma Amien, Hasan and Husein Essop, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Dathini Mzayiya and Berni Searle to imagine ‘Athlone in Mind’ as if to constitute an expansive, fluid and composite conception of the relationship between visual images and imagining place. The digital platform that he has developed for the exhibition and book also stands as a new engagement with Athlone as place for it digitally dismantles the spatial formations of Group Areas, prompting imaginings of space beyond inherited modes of partitioning and ascribing place to community. 


Much like the artworks commissioned for the exhibition, the authors contributing to this collection were invited to think about Athlone as a dream-space; a space through which a different engagement with time, memory and the future may be contoured. Exploring how the aesthetic imagination – visual, literary, cinematic, jazz or a combination of these – opens a different itinerary of ideas as possibilities for being in the world, the essays have taken the challenging yet productive tension between place and the arts as a point of departure. In this, it is my hope that the exhibition, book and digital platform, taken together, also pose Athlone as a question, and through art-making open new ways to think about place, reconstellating the terms by which the city is encountered, many of which have become recalcitrantly normalised in the contemporary moment. 




A longer elaboration of this encounter is published in Grunebaum, H., 2011. Memorializing the past: everyday life in South Africa after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. New Brunswick: Transaction.




Esposito, R., 2010. Communitas. The origin and destiny of community. Translated by Timothy Campbell. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


Grunebaum, H., 2011. Memorializing the past: everyday life in South Africa after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. New Brunswick: Transaction.


Hofmeyer, I., Duphelia Mesthrie, U., Kaarsholm, P., 2016. Durban and Cape Town as port cities: reconsidering Southern African Studies. In: Indian Ocean in Journal of Southern African Studies. 42. 3, 375-387.


Jamaal, A., 1996. Love themes for the wilderness. Cape Town: Kwela Books.


Lalu, P. 2017. The practice of post-apartheid freedom. Unpublished paper presented at the South African Contemporary History and Humanities Seminar (Centre for Humanities Research and Department of History, University of the Western Cape). 13 June.


Matshoba, M., 1979. Call me not a man. Johannesburg: Ravan.


Pieterse, E. ed. 2010. Counter-Currents: Experiments in Sustainability in the Cape Town Region. Johannesburg: Jacana. 


Pinnock, D. 1989. Ideology and urban planning: blueprints of a garrison city in The Angry Divide: Social and Economic History in the Western Cape. Edited by W. James and M. Simons. Cape Town and Johannesburg: David Phillip in association with the Centre for African Studies, UCT, 150-168.


Sitze, A. 2016. Between Study and Revolt. In: Safundi. 17. 3, 271-295.


Western, J., 1996. Outcast Cape Town. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.


Witz, L., Museums on Cape Town’s township tours in Desire lines: space, memory and identity in the post-apartheid city. Edited by N. Murray, N. Shepherd, M. Hall. London and New York: Routledge, 259-276.

 A Question of Place by Heidi Grunebaum 

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