South Africa

Maverick Citizen: Friday Activist

Mariapaola McGurk’s quest for smarter solutions 

Mariapaola McGurk’s quest for smarter solutions 
Joburg can be a harsh teacher, says Mariapaola McGurk, but she's up for the lessons in a city that needs to do better for more people. (Photo: Ulfrieda Ho)

Stepping inside the cube of this creative change-maker is a glimpse of all the boxed-in thinking she wants to set free. 

Confrontation doesn’t faze Mariapaola McGurk. Not that she’s flippant about it because taking a stand can be bloody hard work. But challenging norms for better outcomes means having skin in the game.

Mariapaola McGurk takes a seat at a mobile, fold-out, trolley library being built for communities without library services.
(Photo: Ufrieda Ho)

It’s why McGurk, an artist by training and a contrarian by nature, started The Coloured Cube. It’s a space for creative ideas to flourish with peer support, for the arts and communities to intersect and importantly for artists to be part of a creative economy — on their terms.

“I called it The Coloured Cube in opposition to the white cube of gallery spaces and what the white cube represents,” she says, drawing from the good, bad and ugly experiences she had as a curator at the University of Johannesburg’s gallery. It’s the pushback against boxing people in as insiders and outsiders; or the still white gaze and white curatorship of art; the shrinking relevance of art when it doesn’t relate to communities or when it’s just a tick on a corporate social responsibility checklist.

The Coloured Cube ethos is to use creativity as an intervention, especially in some of the city’s most stressed communities. This is not about a lick of paint or an art installation to make a park or a street prettier, though. For McGurk relevance lies in process, it’s about seeing the bigger picture of needs and the sticky webs both of what keep communities in messy tangles and what hold things together in defiance of everything falling apart. It’s not making assumptions and it’s listening and having conversations, McGurk says.

Art and creatively as intervention, community and solutions.
(Photo: Supplied)

“Sometimes people just don’t want us to be involved in their neighbourhoods and that’s okay too, because we don’t always know best. But it doesn’t mean we just leave, you have to stay plugged in, you need to push yourself and get out of white suburbia as your only reference point,” she says.

It’s why for McGurk, an art intervention can fast turn into something like a braai day for community members to connect and organise, to take action, be it through drawing up petitions or cleaning up a park. It might extend to fighting for informal traders’ rights to be in certain areas, to confronting druggies and drunks taking over children’s play areas or even creating mobile trolley-style libraries in neighbourhoods that don’t have these services.

Building smarter solutions is the best chance of making change happen.
(Photo: Supplied)

“I’m all over the place,” she says, with a laugh, showing off the warehouse space in the industrial hub of Benrose, Joburg, that’s the home of the Coloured Cube she started in 2014. She’s giving a whirlwind tour – and she is a whirlwind of energy. The warehouse now incorporates her latest venture called The Creative Co-lab.

The central idea of the Co-Lab is for creatives to use the space, tools, equipment, peer support and training on a membership basis that even includes a day rate option. It started as a collaboration with graduate students from the School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg, but is now open to all members and includes business skills and entrepreneurship training.

Wings to fly and wings to set ideas free is what Mariapaola McGurk wants to help stimulate for more creatives.
(Photo: Ufrieda Ho)

“Sometimes creatives just don’t have access to a drill, a jigsaw or know-how to use them, or they need some tool to finish a project but they don’t have the money to go out and buy it for a single project. So the idea is they can be here, use tools and try out their ideas,” she says.

The Creative Co-Lab is also located literally on the wrong side of the railway tracks, where the inner city meets Joburg’s eastern suburbs. Some of her corporate clients are initially put off when they’re confronted by the grit and grime of Joburg’s neglected space that is almost impossible to avoid when getting to their premises.

Some artists seeking to join their space have also moaned that there’s not enough parking for their potential clients, but McGurk says this location is exactly where they need to be to truly see the city, to understand divides, stresses and inequality. It’s still a city languishing from apartheid-era spatial design and it still caters to those who have private transport, access to funds and those tapped into markets and client bases.

Collaborators asked to learn about communicating and connecting in how they create.
(Photo: Supplied)

McGurk is characteristically unapologetic and characteristically allergic to being given a label.

“This is not about being some kind of martyr for the arts or being an activist or a do-gooder, that’s not me.

“There’s no such thing as ‘those people who do good’. No, those people are you. It’s just choosing to stand up for what you think is right in every situation you find yourself in. I do this because I get my juice from experimenting, from collaborating and trying to do things that have relevance in a city that can be very harsh,” she says of her beloved Jozi.

She knows she has a contrary nature – her parents told her so when she was six years old. She has problems with authority when it’s illogical or unfair and she’ll call a spade a spade. She’s irreverent, rebellious but also big on saying sorry when she gets it wrong. Being self-critical is developing another muscle and another kind of perspective for finding solutions in a time of need for smarter solutions, the mom of three says.

Smarter solutions for her means that creatives need to find their middle fingers more, be more challenging and to claim their spaces. At the same time she says there’s responsibility in not running from the left-brain stuff either, from numbers to admin and effective communication.

She’s learnt this herself only as an adult. She admits to being a shocking student, more angry and rebellious than present and focused, and with report cards of failures to show for it.

But in 2016 she applied for and was awarded a full bursary to pursue an MBA, which she completed with flying colours in February.

“It’s because this time round, the numbers and the content were relevant to me and I can see how it impacts on how I run The Coloured Cube,” she says.

Finishing her MBA as the kid who got an F for accounting is her nod to failure as a teacher. It’s also acknowledging that trying new things, experimenting all the time is part of her journey. It’s staying plugged in even when the going gets tough, to challenge herself so she can challenge others too. MC

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