My arrival in Cape Town last year was riddled with occasional bouts of anxiety and fear. As it goes when you feel like a mere pebble to the overshadowing mountain and weary of what lies behind the surrounding new faces. Nevertheless, I found my feet in becoming familiar with the pulsating streets of life birthed by the Mother City. Caught up in thought, my beating imagination let loose into a vision of a night in the heart of town where it too pulsated with activity and vigour – so much so that the intention was other than that of turning Long Street into a long night…
As it turns out, I wasn’t alone in thinking these thoughts.
Enter the alternative phenomenon that is First Thursday’s. A designated day, on the first Thursday of every month, where art galleries and cultural events in and around Cape Town’s central city remain open until 9pm or later. First Thursday’s intentions lie in fuelling social engagement for those wanting to explore the city on foot and experience the cultural wealth Cape Town has to offer. A concept which seems utopianly beautiful at heart – a melting pot of discussion, debate and admiration, between locals and tourists alike, which cover the vast depths of meaning in arts and culture.
Yet my mind brimmed with questions at the prospect of the idea. How many people are truly interested in the means, mediums and manners of human expression? Are they students too? If not, what kind of vibe are we looking at here?
I felt I had been in far too many a quiet, empty gallery space to think this was possible – but that was not the case with what I experienced. A few trips later and I’m left pondering the question of why First Thursday’s remains so popular, even among students. What was I missing?
Seeking answers, I reverted to asking fellow students at the University of Cape Town questions surrounding their affinity for and against First Thursday’s and their ideas surrounding its relevance in a cosmopolitan city like Cape Town.
As a cultural space rather external to monotonous campus life or the occasional ‘let your hair down’ night which involves VERY different intentions, Sunayna Bholah emphasized her sense of escapism from the academic life that comes with actuarial sciences. She attributed her sense of personal refreshment and stimulation to the “feeling that I was part of something bigger”.
Elaborating on why she feels the event maintains relevance among students, Sunayna reflected on her past in saying, “for someone not really exposed to the arts, [First Thursday’s] is definitely an easy avenue to experience a different creative aspect of Cape Town separate to the usual activities involving the mountains and the sea“.
The monthly pilgrimage to the depths of Cape Town’s CBD was described by psychology student, Nashuu Rawjee, as a means of allowing “the masses to come together with the goal of enjoying and appreciating the beauty of a city with such diverse people of varying ethnicity and cultures”. She felt there’s a significant beauty to it even though she doesn’t particularly ascribe to the creative scene and simply enjoys the vibe created.
From this, I was able to draw parallels with my personal experience First Thursday’s. The feelings I felt were a concoction of being a kid in a candy store and being a lost child in a supermarket. I was greeted by a lingering smell of social exuberance that wasn’t evident when I walked down the very same street two days earlier. The vibe was completely different to what was presented during the day, which alone seemed powerful enough to bring people together.
Laughter was the drink of choice as I passed through the hordes of people that spilled onto the streets occupying restaurants, bars and galleries. I was stuck in a moment of amazement, struck motionless by the idea that people would rather grace the sidewalks of these streets in these evening hours than find themselves in the wee hours of the morning at a McDonald’s – attempting to sober up. Maybe I was simply being naïve and this was their warm up for the main event, which seems like a win-win in the mind of a student.
Fellow Media student, Abo Booi, now a veteran attendee of First Thursday’s reflected on his first trip by calling it a “wholesome experience”.
As he reminisced of his involvement in high school and church bands, Abo elaborated on his resonation and identification with musicians and the arts in saying, “the positive vibe between artists and creatives together – bouncing off each other, pioneering new ideas, new perspectives, using their art to fight social issues and social constructs – is truly amazing and inspiring”. Further going on to say that he’s more than willing to give up the chance to grab a bite at one of the quirky, hipster restaurants around a street corner than miss an opportunity to engage with a new face about a social or political message hidden below the surface.
Having discussed and pondered the concepts surrounding First Thursday’s with fellow students from differing faculties, the idea of First Thursday’s reached the consensus of being a necessary escape, outlet and coming together of people. The encouragement of someone to be open to the prospect of meeting new individuals of varying skills, talents and opinions is in a sense what makes Cape Town Cape Town.
However, in seeing the gap between the South African/Capetonian art scene and students outside the arts being bridged it was the suggestion by Fathima Moosa that the continued event brings to light the ramifications of Cape Town’s stereotypical culture, particularly the lingering elements of superficiality.
This ability of people to go about discussing art – what some may consider to be a pointless pompous means of upholding their sophistication – is suggested to be a small example of Cape Town’s greater ability to silence the very voices which are seeking to be heard through the art pieces they find before their eyes. Much larger social issues than drinking wine and looking at paintings are being overlooked and ignored. An example exists in the scenario of a homeless person being shunned by an individual for asking for spare change in seeking for their next meal and this individual proceeding to walk into a gallery to view artworks worth quite possibly more than what that homeless person may receive in a lifetime…
I feel there is perhaps the deeper societal perspective of overlooking the worth of one’s very immediate conversations about political and socio-economic issues as merely conversations worthy of no action.
All photos were taken at First Thursday’s events by Arron Moos.