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The Windybrow: A Pan-African centre for the arts

The Windybrow Arts Centre, a business unit of the Market Theatre Foundation, is a vital and vibrant, multidisciplinary arts space in Joburg’s inner city, catering principally for the surrounding community but also for the African continent as a whole. Creative Feel spoke to the Head of the Windybrow Arts Centre, Keituletse ‘Keitu’ Gwangwa about the history and future of this iconic institution. 

Windybrow Arts Centre
The Exclusive Books Pan-African Reading Room for adults

The Windybrow Arts Centre is a prodigious space, both in physical stature and cultural significance, consisting of the 123-year-old Windybrow Heritage House and the adjacent Windybrow Theatre. The heritage house has lived many lives since it was first built as a family home in the Victorian era – it has served as a boarding house, a nursing school, a theatre complex, and now a Pan-African centre for the arts. After a few years spent in disarray, the Windybrow Heritage House was restored by the Market Theatre Foundation and reopened in 2017, with plans to rebuild the theatre still underway. 
     Keitu Gwangwa began work at the Windybrow Arts Centre on 3 January 2018 – the same day that South Africa’s poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile passed away. Gwangwa refers to Kgositsile as her ‘other dad’ and says that he was a driving force in establishing the Pan-African identity of the Windybrow Arts Centre in the late 1990s and making sure that it was recognised across the globe. ‘It hits me when I think about it,’ says Gwangwa. ‘I hope that whatever effort and work I humbly do here, he is proud.’
     Gwangwa also remembers coming to the Windybrow in the early 1990s, when her family and many others returned from exile. ‘A lot of activists gathered in the Windybrow Arts Centre,’ she says, and as a young girl, she would go along with her father, legendary jazz musician Jonas Gwangwa, to those meetings. The energy, she says, ‘was just alive, it was thick, it was electric… I wasn’t really aware of the depth of the conversations and the meaning, but I remember the energy.’ Years later, when she was on her then dream trajectory to becoming an Oscar-winning actress, Gwangwa did her final exams in the Windybrow Theatre.
     Gwangwa realised right at the beginning of her acting career that she was happier behind the scenes than on stage. She found her passion for ‘creating a space for artists to be their best’ through her work at Cultural Helpdesk and as a cultural entrepreneur. Through working with her father and Mbongeni Ngema on Sing Africa Dance, which featured performers from across the continent, Gwangwa discovered her passion for the continent and Pan-Africanism. ‘Being in that space, I think, was really lifechanging because I got exposed to indigenous arts from all over the continent and I was just in my element.’ She then started a company called Africa Zazi (meaning ‘Africa know yourself’), through which she created a curriculum for schools to teach young people about the continent. ‘I just had a new love for this continent,’ says Gwangwa. 

Keitu Gwangwa Windybrow Arts Centre
Keituletse ‘Keitu’ Gwangwa

‘When the opportunity came up, to have a Pan-African centre of the arts (the Windybrow) in this very diverse space that is Hillbrow, which is essentially an internal port for the entire continent, I was just excited,’ she says. 
     Central to the Windybrow Arts Centre’s programming is the youth. There is a year-long arts programme, which includes film, drama, music, indigenous instruments, poetry and scriptwriting. The Exclusive Books Pan-African Reading Rooms for adults and children provide havens for community members to read African stories in a variety of languages. ‘The youth programme has a very Pan-African theme around it, and we are trying to inspire children to write their own stories,’ says Gwangwa. ‘This is Hillbrow. When Hillbrow is profiled, people are always talking about their experiences of Hillbrow coming from the outside in. “What happened to me when I was in Hillbrow” – they tell that story. You never hear from the people, the residents of Hillbrow, their own stories: “I’ve lived here, this is my life, these are my day-to-day experiences. I am looked at as the person who will rob you.” Or how girls growing up in this space are looked at… when children, young girls, are growing up into this identity, what does it do to them? And so I want them to have the platform to be able to speak about that and to be able to express it in their own language. So we have creative writing and scriptwriting and, for the first time next year, we are going to have an indigenous theatre festival where they will write their own stories in their own language and we will have open theatre play readings and performances and manuscripts in their different languages.
     ‘We want to give the children a platform to express themselves, to let them express their minds, their thoughts, their feelings, but, most importantly, to help them understand that their voice is recognised and that they are allowed to be heard just as much as anyone else. This is a very underresourced area, it is challenging to be in this space. Half of what we are fighting here is the perception of people, because people always say to me: “Oh my god, how do you work in that place?” And I say, “when I walk outside, I see people. I see children going to school, I see mothers going to work, I see men hustling, just trying to make ends meet.” When you begin to look at people and see people, then you can work.’

Windybrow Arts Centre
The Esther Mahlangu Boardroom at the Windybrow Arts Centre

Gwangwa says that these youth programmes have been very positively received by the surrounding community. ‘Parents have come and spoken and shown appreciation. A lot of the people that are in this community come from the outskirts. Some of them are from the village… In a city setting, everybody’s working. Nobody has time to teach the kids, to tell the stories, so we become part and parcel of raising their children essentially, which is a big ask, but they value the programming that we have put together for their children. That’s been a positive response. Everybody is looking forward to seeing the new arts centre come up, but I think we can still do more. Once we grow in capacity, I think we can do more.’ Gwangwa credits a lot of this success to arts facilitator Nombulelo Mhlongo, who was contracted to facilitate the youth programme. ‘She was just a vital part in forming that relationship with the community… she made great ground in breaking that barrier. Now, if we have a festival, even the taxi drivers will come. And I love that you have that, you can have a maskandi festival and you can have people from Sandton come and the taxi drivers come to this space and that, for me, is what the Windybrow is. It can mix people from all kinds of backgrounds.’
     Another highly successful programme is the Kwasha! Theatre Company, a youth drama company that is in residency at the Windybrow, in collaboration with the Market Theatre Laboratory. ‘Each year, we audition six theatre graduates and they are given a monthly stipend and they work with us for ten months. Kwasha! has been a really great success. They did The Little Prince last year in collaboration with Institut Francais – South Africa and we worked this year in collaboration with Theatre Rocket on a production called DEURnis/Uzwelo, which was a predominantly Afrikaans and English production and when we brought in Kwasha!, we made it a Pedi, Sotho, Xhosa, Zulu production, a multilingual, site-specific, one-on-one theatre production, so one audience member, one actor in a room, not in a theatre space, and this was on the Main at the National Arts Festival this year. ’ 

Windybrow Arts Centre
The Exclusive Books Pan-African Reading Room for children

The Windybrow Arts Centre offers a rich programme catering to all tastes, year-round. This includes the annual Africa Month Festival, which consists of film screenings, exhibitions, programming around literacy and live performances (drama, acting, music). The festival is an exploration of talent from entire the continent for the entire month of May and has been extremely successful – it was the official host of the 2018 Africa Day celebrations. 
     Thari is a travelling installation that features cloth from across Africa, including Mali mud cloth, Senegalese Indigo, Cameroonian Kuba cloth, Ghanian Ashanti, Congolese Batik, Malawian Chitenge, South Africa’s Tsonga Shibelane and motsheka, Pedi Yele, and the Xhosa isimbatho. Each cloth carries messages woven in by the women of the cultural tribes, each serving a purpose when clad. 
     ‘The dialogues at the Windybrow focus on unpacking topics such as Pan-Africanism and its legacy, gender equality, identity and a myriad of topics around social issues. In 2018, the Windybrow Arts Centre, Market Photo Workshop and the Wits University Film School began hosting film screenings, under the title “Pan-African Film Festival”, this partnership lead to the annual Reframing Africa film conference, which has been well received. The Windybrow has also been able to secure a partnership with Honest Travel Experiences, a young tourism company resident in the Heritage House. They create unique experiences exploring the Johannesburg inner city. The partnership hopes to host tours during the day and end up with at a theatre performance in the evening,’ says Gwangwa. ‘We also hope to introduce French and Swahili classes during Africa Month.’
     The Windybrow Arts Centre has made some incredible strides since its reopening, with support from the immediate, national and international communities. With her passion for the arts and the African continent and long history with the Windybrow, Keitu Gwangwa is the ideal person to take this Pan-African centre for the arts to new heights, bringing in art and artists from across Africa, and uplifting the surrounding communities through art.

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