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1 November 2014 12:45 (South Africa)
Opinionista Andrew Miller

No room for royalty

  • Andrew Miller
Nowhere is the yawning national gap between policy and reality in the lives of artists more evident than in the story of the Prince of Newtown. Here’s why.

The Prince’s products have travelled the globe, the media love writing stories about him, and his jewellery is unquestionably the binding feature of the city arts scene (everyone in the creative city owns a Prince ring - everyone.) Yet he is never part of any formal arts events, locally or internationally, and in March this year he will be back to selling on the street. While we blow millions on the mystical magic of the Venice Biennale, none of the organisations mandated to grow and showcase our creative culture is willing (or is it able? Sometimes it's hard to tell) to accommodate Prince's daily work, or showcase him internationally. We talk the talk of integrated development and arts precincts, but Jozi's arts community has failed completely to integrate its very own Prince.

“Mthakathi!” He bellows at the security guards as he breezes past.

“Mthakathi!” they laugh in reply.

“Mamzozo,” Prince grabs the finger of a porky tourist in a manner no one else would dare. “I have one just the size for you.”

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“Mthakathi! Satan!!!” he screams at the Rastas crossing the road. Everyone stops and waits, but halfway he there he sees a movie star or a TV star or a dancer or a restaurant owner and changes course... Such is the daily experience of the Prince of Newtown, surely the most recognised (and loved) artist in the city.

Prince has shared office space with us at Unity Gallery for three years, and we've sold his pieces and worked with him for many more. He has travelled a long road to some level of creative respect. Having travelled much of the road with him, we have no doubt that his life will continue on the quirky and engaging trajectory it has always followed. Yes, we are closing our space down, but we know Prince will remain rock solid. There is no other way. His story, however, often makes us despair about the ability of our societal structures to work with and support our most important community figures.  

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Prince's fashion and style is thoughtfully constructed each day, and some days this construction includes leathers and skins and hats made from all manner of things and clothes that could be mistaken for off-cuts or lost goods. Add this to the fact that Prince hangs with everyone – the downtrodden, the business people, the young drunk and high kids, the artists, the musicians, the mothers and their babies – and it makes an odd kind of sense that the lights of the city might be structurally unable to reveal who he actually is, and what an important role he plays in bringing the various factions of Jozi street and art culture together.

Maybe the inherent fragmentation of his being is the reason we, the Jozi arts community, seem unable to do anything but treat the Prince of Newtown in the same shoddy manner as Solomon Linda or Mahlathini. Maybe he is simply too mercurial for the likes of government departments or arts organisations. Maybe it is just easier for us all to presume this man will always be here, doing what he does, day after day.

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As I write this, there's another group of tourists at Prince's desk. Clusters of tourists being entertained by Prince is a view I have enjoyed pretty much every day since we have had our gallery in Newtown. I often wonder, when laughing with Prince and the thrilled Europeans, if our arts policy makers have any idea how many people come here every week to find Prince. Or if they know that someone like Jo Buitendach and her very successful Past Experiences city tour company explicitly include meeting Prince as one of the city's cultural highlights. 

Sello Molefe, a media practitioner who has operated from Newtown for many years, describes his experience of Prince, whom he first knew as Prince of the Market. This was many, many years ago, when Newtown was effectively abandoned. It was a time when Prince was one of a cluster of artists who occupied vacant properties. Who kept the creative essence of the place alive through their work, and their presence. Through their passion for art, in all its forms.

“Prince is a cultural icon of Newtown,” says Molefe. “He is incredibly popular. He is known all over the world. He is a serious tourist attraction in this area. How many documentaries, literary art works, TV shows, films and newspapers has he featured in? He is a musician and an artist.”

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And yet, when the gentrification of Newtown rolled in, there was no room for Prince, nor for any of the other so-called street artists who kept the area alive, none of whom were able to deal with the sudden cost of space. As the offices went up, space for artists closed down. Now that many of the offices are gone (BASA, Xarra Books, Kaya FM et al), Newtown is struggling to hold its head up, but there is still no room for Prince, or for any of the street artists who actually make this place a cultural precinct. That precious square of informal art and craft activity outside the Market Theatre is gone, along with most of the venues that hosted informal art and culture in the area. Newtown has, intentionally or not, evicted its street artist community. As a result, it becomes increasingly challenging to say why this area should be called a cultural precinct, over and above regions such as Maboneng or Braamfontein.

“For me, Prince's story... it's like being lost,” says Molefe. “Here's this master plan for development that we have. It may have been carefully written down, but the reality is it has never been translated to the practising artists who work down here. The master plan exists. The artist isn't part of the plan, but he's in the plan. Prince is an artist. He should be accommodated in Newtown. He makes a living off his art. He should be accommodated full stop.”

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I first met Prince just short of ten years ago. I was immediately struck by his boldness. I was also confused by his clothes. Ultimately I was intrigued. I would learn in later years that Prince on the streets of the city is entitled. He goes anywhere. He goes everywhere. And the doors always open. Prince isn't just tolerated, he is welcomed. And he is welcomed because wherever he goes he brings laughter and smiles, and then he leaves the evidence of his magic behind in the form of a ring, a bracelet, a necklace or a hat made out of a pot.

Of course the reality of Prince's daily life is complex and not very magical and revolves, as it does for most of us, around revenue. The son of recently deceased jazz musician, Jika Twala, Prince is of the Apartheid generation who were completely and utterly screwed by circumstance: no proper education, no economic opportunity, no respect, no chance. Ever. He has lived selling jewellery out of his leather pouch on the street for too many years to count, but this has truly been a subsistence gig. As welcomed as he is on the city streets, no formal agency or organisation has been willing or able to create space for him to work. Without this kind of structural support, the artist remains trapped in subsistence forever (one of the most challenging paradigms of subsistence art is the forced undercutting of your own prices. When you need R20 to get home tonight, it's extremely hard to push the market value of your work up on a sustainable basis).

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When Prince moved into our gallery at the Bus Factory in 2010, his business improved. Last year, we worked with him to formalise his company and secure funding from the National Arts Council to hold a solo exhibition. The show was packed. Robert Whitehead – a.k.a. Barker Haines – bought jewellery, as did many other celebrities. More importantly, Prince was able to show his conceptual art in a context where it demanded the same respect our suburban fine arts students take for granted. And it received that respect. The government people came. The journos came. The fashionistas came.

And yet...

When Fashion Week takes place in the city (less than ten metres from Prince's studio at our gallery), claiming the city's urban arts scene as its ethos and inspiration, Prince is not invited (in fact, he is physically shoved from the premises by hired-gun security guards, but that's a story for another day). The art of the street is not featured when the street is used as a conceptual backdrop by event organisers. That's not the way the game works.

And yet...

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While his jewellery has been bought by visitors from every country in the world, when South Africa's art is represented internationally, Prince's work is nowhere to be seen.

As Prince's operational front for the last few years, we have been on the receiving end of a litany of lectures on What Prince Should be Doing. The marketing chicks bark at us about punctuality, the Hyde Park ladies tell us he should famous in Sandton, the journos quote him verbatim, brazenly ignoring the deep metaphorical nature of his spirit and his words... The general thrust is that if only Prince would get his act together, he would be world famous. He would be the shining emblem of our city.

I disagree. I think the Prince of Newtown is the Prince of Newtown. He is already the emblem. He is the de facto monarch of this domain. Just ask any young artist on the city streets. Fashion Week organisers should be begging to feature his work, and Prince should be given the same latitude as the other prima donnas in the industry. We should be flying him to France - business class - for the Paris season, in a seat next to Bra Hugh.

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Everyone – you, me, the arts journos, the city officials – is rich with verbiage on this is one crazy, weird, distorted, bizarre and often incoherent city. We love to say how much we love the madness. So, do we really expect our Prince to be anything other than a mirror of who we all are, and where we all come from? Does he really have to get in line?

Or do we?

I say pay respect where it is due. I say let's acknowledge the man who has earned it, the man who kept an area like Newtown alive when all the larnies had abandoned it. Let's expose this man and his work to the world, because he represents all of us, in all of our fucked up Jozi madness.

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Come March, Prince will no longer have an office, but just because he will be selling his jewels from the street again, that doesn't mean he is a street seller. He will remain, wherever he is, however he works, our Prince. What we choose to do with this fact is up to us. DM

PS: One of you larny arty okes with budget needs to book this man a headline gig at Fashion Week and/or Design Indaba. After you've done that, call in the copywriters to gush about how edgy and urban you are.

PPS: Look out for Prince and his work at the Past Experience's pop-up store in Braamfontein (Melle Street, to be precise) on Saturday mornings.

  • Andrew Miller

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