LEADING THROUGH STREET ART.
JUMA MKWELA IS THE FOUNDER OF JUMA ART TOURS, WHICH TAKES CUSTOMERS ON WALKING TOURS OF THE STREET ART SCENE…
Juma Mkwela is the founder of Juma Art Tours, which takes customers on walking tours of the street art scene in Woodstock, Cape Town. We spoke to him about his troubled past, his passion for art and people, and what it is that makes his art tours one of the most unique experiences in the world.
When Juma Mkwela, who was born in Malawi and raised in Zimbabwe, became one of thousands of foreigners forced to live in a Khayelitsha refugee camp after South Africa’s infamous 2008 xenophobic riots, he found himself in a position of leadership – ushering in newcomers, negotiating rules, settling disputes, and liaising with several governmental agencies and NGOs.
He spent nearly six months in the refugee camp, and his role led him to be invited to participate in a Lucca Leadership course, an international personal development programme that focuses on the ability to foster collaboration and unity in diverse groups. It was through that course (“which was so intense that one week felt like three months,” laughs Juma) that he met renowned street artist Freddy Sam. It was a meeting that would change many lives..
Juma had been creating art since he could remember. “I was doodling in the womb,” he chuckles. Before the xenophobic riots, he sold paintings to corporate clients while hawking wire sculptures to make ends meet.
In Zimbabwe, Juma says, if you created a controversial mural “you could just disappear”, but Freddy reignited Juma’s dormant passion for meaningful pieces and prominent street art. Juma moved into Woodstock and began to create art in Freddy’s studio with other artists, which spilled out into the streets of the Bohemian suburb.
“If you put an artwork in a room only you and maybe your friends and family will be able to enjoy it,” he says, “but if you paint one artwork on a wall downtown, a million people could be inspired.”
In 2012, Juma started getting inquiries about the Woodstock art scene. People wanted to find out more about the murals and the artists who were behind them. They had come to the right person. Juma was the link between Woodstock’s artists and its community, as he would approach residents to get permission to paint on a wall.
It was a win-win and a virtuous cycle: the community appreciated having their streets decorated with work that not only looked good but also told their stories, and Juma won their trust and got to know them personally – which improved the pieces that he and the other artists created in the neighbourhood.
By 2014, the occasional inquiries about the Woodstock art scene had turned into an avalanche of local and international interest. That’s when Juma decided to invest his time and energy into Juma Art Tours.
The company provides tours that combine art viewing with community engagement – customers not only get to view the pieces and hear about their meaning, they also get to meet the artists and interact with the Woodstock community, and are invited into their homes to hear their stories and even enjoy a traditional meal.
“I’m using art as a tool,” Juma says. “We’re going to walk and you’re going to see art, but we’re also going to meet people. We’re going to speak about the culture. We’re going to speak about the history. You’ll hear some thoughts from the people in that way.”
"To me an artwork is an expression. Every person, when they see an artwork, will see it differently. Art will make you look at the world differently. It will make you imagine. "
"There is distress in every human being, and art is like therapy. When people walk through Woodstock and look at the art, they forget their problems for a while."