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Cape Town, South Africa is in the midst of a water crisis — it’s reaching a point at which the city may deplete its freshwater reserves, but local artists are taking a stand.

In light of this news, Madeleine Bazil took to the city’s streets with her camera to document a desalination plant and convey the impending effects of the water crisis on Cape Town’s residents. Hoping to learn more about Madeleine’s work and her thoughts on art’s place in political and economic crises, we asked her a few questions.

Airfield in South Africa

How would you describe your work?

I am very focused on the idea of memory — I’m intrigued by its duality, and the fact that it is a permanent record but also one that is highly subjective and malleable. This interest is a running thread throughout much of what I create.

My personal work tends to center around the notion of capturing fleeting moments, in an attempt to speak to something greater and perhaps generational — preemptive nostalgia, if you will. It’s definitely related to being relatively young and feeling like life is happening quickly, that if you blink, you’ll miss it. My documentary work is heavily grounded in my fascination with individual and collective memory of cultural trauma — the intricate ways in which people and societies narrate, navigate, heal from, and remember wounds. A lot of that fascination comes from my experiences in the NGO and non-profit world. I would say that my praxis lives at the intersection between journalism and fine art in the pursuit of honest and captivating storytelling.

Docked ship in Cape Town

Have you always been an artist? What attracted you to this mode of expression?

I’ve never studied photography formally but instead, fell into it by accident as a teenager, but I did study studio art for many years before ever picking up a camera. Eventually, I realized that I could articulate myself more fully with photography, and that’s when I got more serious about it. I’ve been fortunate to be a member of a really phenomenal creative collective for the past few years as well, which has consistently pushed me to grow. Photography serves as a framework for the way in which I interact with the world at large; it’s both a narrative vehicle and a means of creative output.

Would you say that your art is inherently political?

Maybe it’s because I was born and raised in Washington D.C., but I think everything is inherently political. Life is political — the only people who don’t think so are the people who are privileged enough to live with blinders on. And art is a reflection of, and a response to, life.

What brought you to South Africa? What is your connection to the country?

I originally came to South Africa a couple of years ago. I was spurred by an interest in new democracies and how a society can move forward, sort of the kernel of the whole memory and trauma theme.

I took an internship with a non-profit in Cape Town and fell in love with the creative energy of the city immediately. Everyone is either in a band or takes photos or did a fine arts degree or something like that, and so there’s this interconnected, small-town gig economy vibe housed within a beautiful city surrounded by oceans. In the months and years since, I’ve spent a lot of time off and on doing freelance work in South Africa, and it has become a second home to me. But it’s soon to become my permanent home, as I’m finally booking a one-way ticket to Cape Town to start a new job.

Ragged shoreline in South Africa

Why did you feel compelled to create a body of work around the water crisis?

I wanted to investigate the tension that occurs when humankind’s long-term abuse of the earth and its resources meets bureaucratic red tape and political mismanagement — the ways in which these two factors echo and bounce off each other, as well as the ways in which the reverberation of all of that has impacted the city at large. And then, there is the looming question of how to reckon with all of it as a society, where do you go from there?

What do you hope your body of work evokes?
In February the city of Cape Town finally began construction on three seawater desalination plants intended to mitigate the water crisis (the vast majority of the municipal water supply is currently sourced from Theewaterskloof Dam, hence the issue when rains don’t fall). It’s unclear how helpful these will be given that they’re hugely expensive to build and to maintain.

When I learned that one of these construction sites was located at the V&A Waterfront, I was intrigued. That curiosity became the basis of this body of work. The V&A is a gentrified pedestrian area of yachts, shopping malls, upscale food halls, and luxury hotels in the heart of the city — a Disney-esque bubble. At the end of the waterfront, though, there is an eventual petering out of development. The sidewalks fade to dirt. And this is where one of the desalination plants is located. The site, with its stark proximity to development and luxury, felt striking and significant to me as a reminder that moving forward, climate change can no longer be ignored or shoved aside by those of us who have been lucky enough to ignore its effects up until recently. Water has to be recognized as a finite resource and respected accordingly. And, of course, we must think about the ways in which environmental crises are most harmful to already vulnerable communities — should Cape Town ever see Day Zero arrive, inhabitants of informal settlements or townships would suffer the most. Climate change affects everyone — and, most importantly, it isn’t going away, which is what I hope this body of work makes plain.

Desalination plant explanation sign

Can you speak a bit about your decision to use film? How do you believe this best represents the situation at hand?

The decision to work in analog was an easy one, as I’ve pretty much exclusively been shooting 35mm film in recent months. I do a lot of freelance work on digital, and I hit a point last year where I was getting burnt out — shooting film has brought me back to the magic and excitement of creating. Film is a craft; it works your brain in a different way.

With WATER[LESS], I also wanted to highlight the impending permanence that this transitional societal or environmental moment manifests — just because Cape Town gets some winter rains this year doesn’t mean that this issue is over for good, and I think that the tangibility of film speaks to that.

Desalination plant warning sign

How do you see other artists portraying the current situation in Cape Town?

It’s been really interesting to see the way that the water crisis has permeated a whole range of artistic media and creative pursuits. I just read an article the other day about how the head chef at The Test Kitchen, the most highly rated restaurant in all of South Africa, came up with a special drought-edition prix fixe menu that takes water-saving measures into account from start to finish. Several months ago the city also worked with one of the biggest design firms in Cape Town to commission several musicians to re-orchestrate their hit songs to clock in at exactly two minutes — the length of time that people are meant to spend in the shower under the current water restrictions. These are just a few examples — there have been so many other innovative artistic responses to the situation.

What role do you think artists have in these unique environmental/political scenarios?

I feel there is a responsibility as an artist to be truthful and empathetic, whatever that may mean for the individual and their creative practice. And I think that very often, especially in this day and age, an exploration of one’s existence within a geographic or political context becomes unavoidable territory for artists.

Docked ship in Cape Town

Do you think that art will spur any public action in South Africa?

Absolutely. And historically, the arts have consistently been a major means of pushback and discourse during times of injustice or strife in South Africa, as well as a vehicle for retrospective reckoning and healing. Sustainability and the arts are already so intertwined in the local culture and I’m interested to see how it all plays out further.

If you want to learn more about the current situation in Cape Town, click here.