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Art, activism and bicycles | Sandy Maytham-Bailey

I’m a cyclist and an artist so this blog may be a bit left of centre but I thought I’d look at the bicycle through a slightly different lens. Besides, who chooses to cycle is as multifarious as MacAskill to My Fok Marelize. So here goes…

On a recent car journey with Mike Roy (head scribe of the illustrious FC writers group, and my lift down to the inaugural Freedom Circuit 700, where I was squeezed into his trusty Cruiser amongst fishing gear and cooler boxes), I was astounded at how Mike could weave a story, connecting remote areas, people and places, even throwing in an anecdote about his grandmother signing the summit book kept in a tin on the top of koppie outside of Bulwer. In fact, so curious is Mike that he ferreted out a distant varsity connection we have in common - I’ll leave it at that.

What Mike never realised, until this trip I suspect, was that he was quite integral to my RASA journey. It didn’t start well. It was 2016 and I had just moved to Johannesburg from Cape Town and invited on a Delta bicycle ride. On a borrowed bicycle I rode the furthest I’d even ridden, a grand distance of 12km, and promptly got talked into a bike-packing ride with a certain Kevin Davie, Lynn Morris, and Rory Field. It was back at the Delta Café after a training ride for the planned bike packing trip, that I met Mike for the first time. Mike asked me how I planned to carry my bike as he obviously knew more about Kevin’s bike packing rides than I did. What a chop I thought (of Mike, not Kevin), he doesn’t even know me, and he thinks I can’t ride a bike. Little did I know.

But I shall resist the temptation to expand on my personal journey to RASA and other Freedom Trail events, and rather use the opportunity to segue to a different story, a short story about art, activism, and bicycles.

From the outset of its invention, the bicycle was going to change the world. And it did. From the first bicycle, the Celerifere (1790), a beautiful sculpture piece in itself; to the rebel cycling gang, the Scorchers of Denver, to Leni Riefenstahl’s 1936 ‘propaganda’ film The Berlin Summer Olympics, there can be no doubt about the influence the bicycle has had on history from protagonist to object of desire.

What could be more famous, simple and beautiful than Pablo Picasso’s Bull’s Head? Picasso said of the discarded saddle and handlebars that he arranged into a bull’s head and cast in bronze, “The sculpture is a moment of wit and whimsy, it stands as an assertion of the transforming power of the human imagination at a time when human values are under siege." I can think of a few cyclists on this group who could whip up a few Picasso’s.

Pablo Picasso. Bull’s Head. 1942.

Or the more controversial and contemporary artist famed for poking fun at big companies and sending political messages through his graffiti work, known only as Banksy. While Banksy’s real identity and motives are never revealed, speculation is that in this new graffiti artwork, the bicycle wheel represents the circle of life and that it is possible to be positive and playful beyond covid nihilism.

Banksy. Nottingham hula-hooping girl. October 2020 Then there’s the formidable Chinese artist and activist, Ai Weiwei whose multiple bicycle installation is a commentary on the role of the bicycle in Chinese society with its layered messaging of mass consumerism and the unsustainability of vehicle transportation. The many iterations of the installation have been used all over the world to create messages of urban mobility and safe sustainable cities. If you happen to own a Chinese made ‘Forever Bicycle’, hold onto it as it’s bound to be worth a fortune someday.

Ai Weiwei. Forever Bicycles. 2013 Toronto Installation.

There are many other bicycle stories to tell but it is this poignant story of a local struggle hero and activist that perhaps touches on the essence of the Freedom Challenge and the heart of every cyclist who has ridden across this beautiful land.

Sol Plaatje, the first general secretary of the South African Native National Congress (now the ANC), activist, journalist, and accomplished linguist, traversed the Free State, much of the Transvaal and the Northern and Eastern Cape on his bicycle, to document the impact of the 1913 Land Act on rural people. His ‘boneshaker’ bicycle included a rear rack for his trusty typewriter. His findings were published in a book, Native Life in South Africa, in 1916.

Sol Plaatje cycling into South African History by Geoff Waters, The Heritage Portal. 1. Plaatje showing his passbook. 2. Portrait of an activist, academic, journalist and founder member of the SANNC. 3. National Heritage Monument, Long March to Freedom. Sculpture by Egon Tania and Guy Du Toit.

In 1991, 80 years after it was enacted, the Land Act was finally abolished. Plaatje’s vivid recording of what he found traversing the back roads of rural South Africa was the first step in a process which led to this end, and is perhaps the historical blueprint for what has become our “Freedom” Challenge today.

Members of the Freedom Family continue to drive change through their generosity. While many may not have known the bicycle story of Sol Plaatje, the Freedom Family continues this legacy.

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