What happens when artists go into poor neighbourhoods and create art? Gentrification. And also documentaries such as Diamond Inside which I saw as part of Singapore Indie Doc Fest. It’s a documentary by Luis Sanchez Alba about Boamistura, a well-known Spanish art collective who go to Cape Town to paint murals in townships. This is not the first superficial documentary of its kind, but its the first I’ve seen in a while that both highlights and leap-frogs an obvious problem with its subject: while the artists in question are very dedicated to the idea of social good via public art, there is zero strategy for ensuring that the benefits of this art go to the people who live in the area.
During the Q&A with Alba, he several worrying things came up which he does not address in his film. First, I noticed that every single person featured was male. Second, that one of the residents of the building painted on by Boamistura was being evicted. Third, he filmed one of the men talking about his criminal past without his permission. Fourth, the spray-paint used for the murals was sponsored by Adidas. It seems there were more issues than triumphs with the project.
When I asked Alba about the issue of gentrification, he responded by saying “capitalism is really fucking everything up.” So why doesn’t he say this in his film? Every documentary must choose its focus, but Diamond Inside has “the system” in its crosshairs and chooses to ignore it. It doesn’t even need to aim. Why doesn’t he ask Boamistura how they reconcile the ostensible claim to be improving a neighbourhood with the fact that the poor residents will be forced, by market and social forces, to move elsewhere because of those improvements? Far from being an attack on Boamistura, the question would be pertinent to every artist watching, since anyone who claims that art is a social good in itself needs to evaluate their reasons for thinking so. The question is not so much how this good is dispensed as how the people who first laid eyes on it – because they lived in an area no-one bothered with – get to stay and enjoy the benefits. How do they develop alongside their environment? This question of art, social responsibility and how we can move beyond the empty promise of “change” is very hot right now, I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and Diamond Inside feels like a wasted opportunity.
It’s not all bad. There are some interesting moments, such as when the children who train with the cycling workshop renovated by the team erupt into a call-and-response pattern. The murals are beautiful (despite being the kind of commercial graphic art that ups the price of a pair of trainers) especially against the mountains and the coloured roofs of the dust-white townships. If only the sumptuousness of the visuals was matched by a rigorous enquiry of what, exactly, we are looking at.