Art TED Conferences

Using public space as a canvas for imagination: Lesley Perkes at TED2013

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Lesley Perkes walks onto the TED stage to tell us about her birth in 1961 in inner city Johannesburg. Her mother said she looked like a toilet brush, her hair standing on end. “I think I saw the future,” she says.

Her story centers around Hillbrow Tower, the iconic, 268-meter-tall building built in 1968 in the heart of a Jo’burg neighborhood that was closed by the Apartheid ruling class in 1981. Trying to persuade the South African government to convert the still-closed building into a “canvas for imagination” has preoccupied Perkes for the past 20 years. For her, the building’s continued closure is no less than “a crisis of imagination. Unless we do something about it, we are doomed to repeat ourselves.”

She gives the audience some context. Where once Hillbrow was 80% white and filled with continental restaurants and cafés, now it is “seriously continental,” filled with poor residents from all over Africa. This is not the grand colonial city featured on postcards. This is the city of people “wondering where wonder has gone.” It is filled with unemployed people, considered “a no-go zone for anyone with anything to lose.” Perkes quotes mutual fund builder John Templeton. “He said to look for the points of maximum pessimism and invest there. Well I am, and me and my friends are. Ain’t no dustbin too scary for us.”

She shows images from an exhibition constructed with World Cup funds, Long Live the Dead Queen, which converted 10,000 square meters of space in the neighborhood that is normally reserved for alcohol advertising into public art. She shows a pile of rubble next to her house she says she didn’t notice for over a year. She turned it into a concrete bed, the Troyeville Bedtime Story, and now people make trips there specifically to have their pictures taken. She shows images of a Hillbrow entrepreneur who makes shirts, and another of a man who teaches boxing to black and white women.

Perkes may have been campaigning for twenty years, but she’s had mixed luck in getting through the layers of bureaucracy and getting traction for her ideas. But this is not a down-on-your-luck story. Instead, she concludes by describing a meeting with one Sharon Lewis of the Johannesburg Development Agency, who didn’t tell her she’s a romantic and an idealist and it’d never work, but in fact agreed that “we have to do this.” Now might just be the time to do something about updating the neighborhood. “Two weeks ago we did the budget for the inner city upgrade, and a week later she told me she has the budget ring-fenced,” Perkes announces. This is a story still to watch.