The Burning Man philosophy of action was founded in America in 1986 with an annual event in the Nevada desert which now attracts 70 000 people. AfrikaBurn was formed in 2007 as a non-profit company to co-ordinate the South African event.
“AfrikaBurn is an open source model. It is everybody's town and it is defined by everybody. It is idealistic – it is in a rough and difficult and incredibly beautiful space, the desert – you have to bring everything you need to survive, you have to gift something. Everyone goes there, they leave utterly exhausted but an activism is woken up in them. It really is an exercise in self organization, which is amazing,” explained Afrikaburn co founder Monique Schiess.
The original founders of Burning Man were from the bohemian movement of San Francisco and acted from a basis of experimentation, play and idealism. A set of principles, built around “radical self reliance” arose out of practice and action. And they were penned to define the event.
AfrikaBurn founders also included Robert Weinek famous for Bob Bar in Johannesburg, BlackLil who hosted avant grade MALparties and Paul Jorgensen who had a history with Burning Man. The event quickly became the largest regional Burning Man event in the world and is sort out by the global Burning Man community and now attracts 30% of its audience and participators from abroad.
“But it really goes way beyond the founders. We were just facilitators. Humans have a tremendous impulse to work together and be creative. These are the archetypes that the burn brings out.” Monique Schiess
AfrikaBurn was started on a private nature reserve in the Karoo desert of Tankwa, Northern Cape. Organizers and volunteers build a temporary town on the site that acts as a gallery for large scale and mobile artworks. The beautiful site is 1.4km across and eight hundred meters in width. The town plan is in circles. The inner circle, five hundred meters in diameter, is reserved for art and creative activations. And there is a street network behind where people camp and participants create theme camps with activated spaces.
Schiess explains, “A space is created for magic to happen. “We provide the blank canvas, with minimal intervention except that we challenge everyone to do something, anything with bravery and play. That defines the space. It is a fertile ground for invention, collaboration and a space of no judgement, where you can just try.”
One thousand participants attended the opening event, many of whom have remained strong supporters throughout, encouraging their children to grow up with the event.
Schiess said, “We have a number of lovely kids that started coming to Afrikaburn with their parents when they were nine and now are in their early twenties. They are thinking that the Burn is the normal way of life and it doesn’t become something else.
Attendance figures have grown exponentially numbers and after previously sold out events, number are limited to 13 000. The majority age group is now between twenty-five and thirty-nine. As the event has grown, it has necessitated more rules and regulations which is ironic since, “the tap route of Afrikaburn is in anarchy and challenging norms,” as Schiess said.
Afrikaburn has created an Inclusivity Committee which deals with potential barriers to entry and participation for any marginalized groups. Participation is becoming increasingly diversified through collaboration with the wider community. Afrikaburn offer 130 sponsored community tickets for marginalised participants across South Africa. And, Tankwa locals create their own art and performance works.
Year round programmes offer long term support for the local community at Elandsvlei, the karretjiemense of the greater Tankwa area, Middlepos and Matjiesrivier. In response to the fires, AfrikaBurn has supported the Imizamo Yethu, Garden Route and Masiphumelele communities.
Klinton Whitehead from the Khoisan community said, “We feel at home at Afrikaburn. It resonates with a big part of our culture – not to be rigid in living life and to embrace the absurdity that lightens the grind of life. The Elders think it is a strange and beautiful place filled with absurdity and wonder, a dreamlike environment manifested. They absolutely love the experience.”
Afrikaburn awards 40 annual unique creative projects, particularly giant sculptures and mutant vehicles for display at the event. 2018 will see the participation of white lion shaman, instrument player and animal call imitator the ninety year old !Gubi bushmen elder together with his family from the Kalahari and long time collaborator Pops Mohamed.
“Everyone who does something transforms the event. Just putting up a tent for the first time or living without running water, building a thing, burning a thing, doing a performance for the first time and being in a space of no judgement where you can just try; catalyses mind-set changes,” explained Schiess.
The burning of an eighteen meter tall effigy of multiple striding people called “San Clan” brings the event to a climax. The sculpture symbolises community and unity and the burn, “letting go of that which no longer serves you.”
For some artists fire completes their artworks, and for others the pieces are dismantled in order to be re-used or re-erected in bare urban spaces. “People exercise self-organisation in the desert. They are collaborating. And those collectives organise themselves back in town and do things. What I have seen done in the last twelve years is what keeps me involved,” said Schiess.
Afrikaburn has been challenged in the past by the money-making concept “plug, play and profit camps,” the extreme one hundred and ten kilometer dirt road to Tankwa Town, the terrible weather of 2012 and the Norovirus in 2017. “In its essence this whole event is an experiment. We are turning a whole lot of stuff on its head this year, to be true to the experiment and to make sure people don’t ever get too comfortable that we lose the dynamism,” explained Schiess.