It was some time ago that I finally realised just how much light can inspire. On a trip to Mduntsane near East London in South Africa a small team of lighting designer, local authority intervention expert and myself turned up at a local arts centre to try and help them open up the facilities to the local population in the evening. Prior to our visit, the lighting was next to non-existent.
Mdantsane, the second largest township in South Africa after Soweto in Gauteng, is mind-blowing in lots of ways. On our visit, we drove through slums made of corrugated tin rooves, neat rows of modern houses designed to replace the slums, dangling live power lines draped across uncut grass and unprotected, litter in the streets uncleared and a fairly scary interest by locals in these white tourists travelling in a municipality pickup. It is not a place that I would want to grow up in, but having said that, we never met anything but friendly people on our trip.
The reason for our visit revolved around two lighting interventions to try and get local populations to take more care of their facilities and get involved in positive community engagement. This involved lighting the arts centre first by getting the performance artists and craftspeople to work with light to try and describe what they wanted and understand what we could provide.
At one point we were in a fairly bare room with luminaires plugged in all over, trying to show what could be done and get creative. The result was a light sculpture, made of simple fluorescent fittings with colour gels, arranged at odd angles that was to be installed at the arts centre gates to advertise its place in the neighbourhood.
This is no easy task. Next to the centre is a 20 m lighting column, topped with 2kW floodlights lighting a massive area. That column was regularly attacked. Tyres piled around the base and set aflame could weaken the winch wires and see the floods tumble to the floor. The valuable metal was then sold for scrap and the neighbourhood could sleep better in the now darker nights. It’s a mixed-up place for sure, but let’s not get into the reasons.
Our evening was drawing to a close. We had just one floodlight left outside and switched on, trying to give us some light to tidy up. In my hand I had my camera, trying to provide marketing shots for the Thorn Lighting brand, the sponsor providing free lighting and paying for my trip too, thank you.
Whilst passing time talking to the staff I happened upon a dancer, fascinated by the floodlight. He pushed it a round and we thought for a moment damage might be done, or he might burn his hands on the hot glass.
Nothing could be further than the truth. He turned the flood to light himself. Dropping his bag to the floor he started to dance. Inspired by us, but more so by the light. We knew then that the project would be a success.
Thank you to the dancer (unknown), Amathole District Municipality, Cathy Johnstone, Vincent Thiesson and of course Thorn Lighting.