READ THE SIGNS: Anthony Schrag often uses pieces of cardboard with phrases or questions written on them to engage people in his work.                     Photo: Robyn  Kirk

READ THE SIGNS: Anthony Schrag often uses pieces of cardboard with phrases or questions written on them to engage people in his work. Photo: Robyn Kirk

ARTIST Anthony Schrag is different. People are his canvas, not paper, plus he has echolalia, a rare compulsive condition.

Schrag is one of the last artists to be involved in an exchange between Europe and South Africa as part of the Nine Urban Biotopes project. Artists from the two continents experience working in an unfamiliar setting and use the experience to create art.

He has been in South Africa for just over a month as the resident artist at Wits Drama for Life, but moves as if he has been here for years.

“I don’t make things. I don’t make paintings or sculptures or photos or films. I sort of design events.”

His studio is a small and cramped office, a space temporarily occupied for a certain amount of time and then left vacant for longer stretches. After only being there a month, Schrag has undoubtedly made a mark on the place – a white board has random words and the phrase “the theatre that does not heal” scrawled across it. An idea for future work perhaps?

A rather sombre photo hanging on the wall of actors performing a scene from a Shakespearean play has been covered by a piece of paper with a drawn smiley face. And everywhere there are squares of cardboard with short but powerful phrases written across them. Schrag was born in Zimbabwe, spent his childhood in Oman in the Middle East, moved to Canada with his family as a teenager and is currently based in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Do not expect to see any paintings or sculptures of the experience from Schrag in the coming months though, he prefers to use people as his canvas, not paper.

“I don’t make things. I don’t make paintings or sculptures or photos or films. I sort of design events. I’m interested in participatory projects. Projects that happen with people – not for people, not at people, not using people, but sort of with people” he said.

People are his passion and his talent. A few years ago he was diagnosed with echolalia, a compulsive urge to mimic the accents of those who talk to him.

“It’s supposed to be about empathy and belonging. When you mimic the accents or even the physicality of people around you, you’re trying to fit in, you’re trying to be part of it. I realised that was a lot of my work.” He visits strange places, where he tried to fit in and tries to find out things about other peoples’s lives: “I’m like a spy.”

His experiences at Wits in Joburg has inspired the project entitled “The School of No” in which he wants to focus on the community of Drama for Life to understand just what knowledge an educational institution possesses.

In his short time at Wits, he has become very interested in the broader social problems reflected within the university.
He has picked up that African names are anglicised in order to make administration run smoother. And, he believes this may unintentionally perpetuate racist ideology. Schrag has been given the African name “Lethabo” (joy in Sesotho) by a colleague after he pointed this out. “In a way I hope to create conflict with my work. A lot of times community-based artworks try to erase conflict and make everyone happy. Conflict I think reveals where the real problems lie.”

“An artist’s only skill is that they ask questions. They ask pertinent questions. I don’t want to change things, I want to ask difficult questions … Art doesn’t have the right to change things, I think art’s purpose is to ask difficult questions.”