"South Africa's most vulnerable targets are the women and children. An abuse of rights against one group is inextricably linked to abuse and violence against the other..."
Gabisile Nkosi, WFC artist and victim of abuse who recently passed away, May 2008.

Image and poetry help reconciliation in South Africa

Art against abuse

Across the street from the Lamontville taxi rank in KwaZulu Natal, and next to an old hostel remaining as vestige from the apartheid era, stands a massive billboard. The immense image is a black and white silhouette. It depicts a girl sprawled on the ground, a puff of smoke emanating from between her legs. The 3 x 6 meter print carries a potent and increasingly pertinent visual message: female abuse runs rampant in South Africa. Set amidst the desolate, barren, and poverty-stricken landscape, this untitled billboard by renowned American artist Kara Walker, is part of an ongoing campaign called “Women for Children” (WFC).

Kara Walker, Untitled (2005)

The project is an initiative by the Durban-based cultural organization, Art for Humanity (AFH). It is part of a series of projects, which includes 25 women artists and 25 poets, who have organized for the purpose of social advocacy and social change. And while there is no war in South Africa, AFH addresses the ills of a post-apartheid nation still plagued with heated tensions exacerbated by poverty, crime, unemployment, HIV, violence and discrimination.

The struggle for peace: women and children

At its most fundamental level, conflict can be described as the struggle over basic needs including equality, justice, and human rights. When these needs are ignored, countered, or marginalized tensions may arise. In South Africa, a nation of over 47 million inhabitants, half are under the age of 15. The nation’s most vulnerable targets are the women and children. For this demographic life can be very difficult, especially in rural areas where access to education, health care, and proper nutrition is limited. Children and women’s rights are often inseparable. There is a strong correlation between violence against both groups. By empowering women to leverage themselves from socially marginalized positions this can also help children.

Art billboards for healing

AFH uses art and culture as investments towards political and social transformation. The billboard campaign was started to help publicly address issues that were otherwise kept silent: rape, abuse, and violence. Each billboard is adjoined by a poem translated into any one of South Africa’s 11 official languages. This is seen as a way to allow identification, promote diversity, and encourage multilingualism among the country’s diverse population. Combining visuals with text is a way to further prompt discussion: “It is up to the viewer to make up their own mind regarding the message”, admits AFH Director Jan Jordaan.


Public billboards can stimulate conversation by virtue of their location in communal spaces. When provoking discussion they can further instigate gradual process of reconciliation and healing – a process whereby people slowly become more comfortable talking about highly sensitive matters. This sense of revealing otherwise ‘taboo’ subjects is vital towards any reconciliation or peace-building process. Also by constantly rotating the billboards - the art is placed in rural and urban areas on a three-month basis- the images and text can reach a broader and more varied population.

Keeping art relevant and accessible

“Art brings life, hope and comfort,” explains WFC artist Kim Berman, a Johannesburg-native. “But what is important is the authentic response, the levels of transformations and shifts. Art is a form of response when words feel inadequate.”


Alex Flett, 'Three Dancers' (2006)

Berman’s work, entitled “Mothers Grief”, is a response to the loss and despair felt by many mothers who have lost children through violence, AIDS, and other means. In her print the mothers bow their heads together as they throw seeds into the ground. Landscape has often been used as a metaphor for social change in South Africa. Berman explains the barren and unfertile land symbolizes hope for new life and resilience in the face of despair: “People’s agency can create change.”

“Mother’s Grief” is accompanied by a poem in Setswana written by Mmatshilo Motsei. As Berman elaborates, art is about breaking the silence, healing, uniting and offering visibility. “The focus of art-making may also change in line with the struggles of society. It is not only about building connections and collaborations with other artists, but also exchanging and communicating with the general public, civil society, and government organizations.”

Amanda Fortier



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