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The Quick and the Dead

Posted by Sisi / October 17, 2008

20081017_kingsurfer.jpgAll photographic prints from Sanza-Hanza [King Surfer] are by Jamie-James Medina and Matthew Salacuse.

They leap, twist, and run, their sneakers ragged from use. They devise tricks, each more daring than the last, and name them after the heroes of their "play." But these aren't skateboarders, basketball players, or parkour traceurs. They're trainsurfers.

17-year old Tupac (real name Lesego) is a high school kid. He is brash, well-spoken, and steeped in a dark side. Tupac lives in the Soweto ghetto, a collection of townships on the edge of Johannesburg. Along with his crew V.I.R.U.S. (Very Intelligent Riders Usually Survive), he death-defyingly climbs on top, on the sides, and even under trains while they speed along at 80 km/h.

Trainsurfing is so dangerous that every rider, either in or out of V.I.R.U.S., personally knew someone who died. In an attempt to curb the underground sport, security officials with "Metrorail Against Crime" emblazoned across their backs are constantly on the lookout for lawbreakers. The punishment? Heavy beatings and steep fines.

These are the stories brought to you in a photo exhibition called Sanza-Hanza (a Zulu dialect for "King Surfer") by the Emporium Art Gallery, a small art space started a year ago by native Torontonians Ben and Shawn. By day, they own a creative firm called Switzerland with corporate clients worldwide. By night, they put on art shows at the gallery.

Staffed by volunteers, the Emporium is made up of Ben, Shawn, their childhood buddy Dave, and more recent friend Danielle. The gallery is housed at 3035 Saint-Antoine Ouest in St-Henri. The building is made up of low-cost apartments ("crack dens," as Danielle put it) with surf and skate stickers plastered on several doors. Ben discovered the place after a few friends moved out and redid it from top to bottom.


"There used to be a couple here with their kid," said Shawn. "The floors were purple and the walls maroon. They'd throw these crazy parties and I'm pretty sure that's why they got kicked out."

The kick-off party for Sanza-Hanza was held yesterday. The photogs behind the exhibition, Jamie-James Media and Matthew Salacuse, were in attendance from New York, along with Nadia Halgren, who accompanied them to Soweto to shoot a short documentary featuring V.I.R.U.S. It was a difficult shoot.

"At one point, I wasn't even looking," said Nadia. "I was hanging out of a moving train, trying to get the shot, and trying not to fall off. We traveled for 10 days, but shooting was minimal. The cops would shut us down a lot."

"We probably shot for 25 minutes or less," elaborated Matt. "The (security people) aren't police, but they carry guns and it was definitely a cat and mouse game the whole time."

"(The boys) didn't always want to shoot when we wanted to shoot," added JJ. "Sometimes they'd feel it wasn't a good day to trainsurf. But once we started shooting, they were all over the place. As soon as our crew started going, the other crew wanted to outdo them. Our heads were turning trying to get everything."

20081017_kingsurfer3.jpgTupac and Batista.

I asked them my most burning question: why?

"These kids have nothing to lose, so trainsurfing is nothing," replied Nadia. "They do it to and from school, trying to act cool and impress girls. The schools don't have enough money for basketball stars, so trainsurfing is their way of gaining fame."

"You can't forget that apartheid wasn't that long ago," said JJ. "These kids live in the ghetto, they go to school, but there's not much work to be had."

"It was almost a joke how horrendous the newspaper headlines in South Africa are," he added. "Every day we read stuff like 'Woman dies in toilet,' 'Serial rapist raped,' it was just unbelievable."

"Trainsurfing first came from crime," said Matt. "What you would do is snatch someone's purse and, because you had nowhere to go, get on top of the train to escape the cops, then get down and mix in with the crowd at the next stop."

"Sometimes in the worst situations, they just gotta have fun," concluded JJ. "It's like a common thread - how do you escape your realities?"

Easy: hit up the show ASAP, marvel at the living portraits, and thank me later.

Sanza-Hanza [King Surfer]
Jamie-James Medina and Matthew Salacuse
The Emporium Art Gallery (3035 St-Antoine Ouest, studio #74)
Showtimes: Friday, October 17th - Sunday, October 19th 2008 (12PM to 6PM)
Private viewings available by appointment from Monday, October 20th to Tuesday, October 21st 2008



SNAP! / October 19, 2008 at 02:22 pm
Great exhibit!
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Hi there! This post could not be written any better!
Reading through this post reminds me of my good old room mate!
He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this write-up to him.
Fairly certain he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!
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