Venturing into the worlds of Hiten Bawa

Venturing into the worlds of Hiten Bawa

Art work by Hiten Bawa. Hands of different colours on a white background, showing signs for different taxi destinations in Johannesburg.

I decided to compare South African Sign Language, taxi signs and classical Indian dance signs. I wanted to show appreciation of my identity as a deaf, South African Indian person — Hiten Bawa

I was introduced to the colourful and socially-conscious creations of deaf artist and architect, Hiten Bawa while visiting an Open Studio event in Johannesburg’s Ellis House Art Studios. I was lucky enough to catch up with him a few days later in his studio to speak to him about his multilayered creative process.

Nolan Stevens: I will start by asking how you ended up in the arts industry after studying architecture. I was interested to see that you graduated from the same art high school that I did.

Hiten Bawa: Yes, I graduated in 2006 from the National School of the Arts and went to Wits University to do my BA in Fine Art. I wasn’t happy or in a good place at that time so I took a break from my studies and decided to try architecture. I applied to the University of Johannesburg. After studying there for four years, I gained a B-Tech Degree. Then, I decided to do my Masters at UCT (University of Cape Town). But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get away from art-making. Painting and drawing drew me back.

NS: Do you feel that the creative processes of making art and designing buildings are different?

HB: Yes, I find that making art and designing buildings are completely different processes. I have different ways of thinking relating to each process. One is all about designing a physical object that will last for years, and the other is about creating something more fluid and expressive. It doesn’t have to be as practical.

NS: I enjoy your engagement with the city of Johannesburg in your work. Do you find the city unforgiving in terms of access? Particularly for people using wheelchairs or on crutches. It’s not an easy thing getting around this city.

HB: Indeed, it’s not a very accessible city. It’s the most unequal and segregated city I know. I’m an access consultant, so I deal with access in a built environment. I consult with architects, review requirements and make changes to comply with specific building regulations and accessibility codes. But, yes, we still have a long way to go.

NS: I wasn’t even aware that we had accessibility consultants here in South Africa.

HB: There are accessibility professionals here but not many. The idea of accessibility consultants has been around since the 1970s in the UK, America and Australia. There was a recognised need to design buildings to accommodate and include as many people as possible.

NS: The first time I became aware of access needs and disability arts was when I went over to the UK for a disability arts placement. That experience changed how I saw myself. Previously I was embarrassed and ashamed of being disabled. I mean, I was the only physically-disabled person at university.

HB: I think that feeling is mutual for a lot of people with disability. Some have visible impairment like you; some have invisible disability like me. A lot of people don’t realise unless they see my cochlea implants. With regards to disability in the arts, it’s quite tricky to explore and talk about. It took me time to get comfortable to talk with buyers or audiences about sign language, deafness and hearing loss. Sometimes, they might ask me what the hand signs are for and that gives me an opportunity to tell my story and talk about my experience of disability.

NS: What are some of the specifics of your work as an accessibility consultant?

HB: I provide consulting services to architects and engineers. I review their drawings and tell them what they can do to overcome a barrier or remove a barrier or find creative solutions. Then, I make sure they comply with building regulations right up to the stage of council approving a building; then, I compile a report. So I make sure the drawings are checked and audited, and that the building will be accessible once it is built. That’s my role. Besides being an accessibility consultant, I’m also an architect, so I do regular architecture services which bring me a bit of income.

NS: We here in South Africa have this very narrow idea of what is deemed disabled. In your capacity as a consultant or architect, how many facets of disability do you factor in?

HB: Access needs are not limited to people with disability, even the non-disabled struggle with most built environments; not easy to get around, they can get lost, they can walk into glass walls, they can’t get a pram over a huge step, they can’t open doors while carrying a load. Those sorts of things that we take for granted become difficult for them. The problem with newer buildings is that the developers don’t worry about access. They worry about green building criteria, sustainability and energy efficiency. In terms of energy criteria, the building is approved, but when you look to approve the same new building for accessibility, well, it’s not accessible. Developers don’t even consider wheelchair access or how a door will open for a wheelchair or a baby pram. They don’t even consider baby-changing facilities in a shopping mall. So, no, the various difficulties disabled people may have with the built environment are not considered. For me, as a deaf person, I hate going out to places like shopping malls. The acoustics are terrible for my cochlea. With the sound bouncing everywhere, I can’t tell where the sound is coming from. I become anxious and keep looking around, wondering what’s going on or if someone is talking to me. When we have meetings with friends or family in a restaurant or café, I find it challenging to be part of the conversation because the acoustics are so bad. Sometimes, I ask them to repeat until I get to the point where I give up, look down and eat my food, waiting for the time I can get the hell out of there.

NS: One of the things that drew me to your artwork is how you deal with historically Indian locations and how areas were divided and segmented according to race in this country according to the Group Areas Act.

A map of Fordsburg in red by Hiten BawaHB: Yes, for example, we have Fordsburg, Newtown and Lenasia, Soweto.  I’ve found it interesting that if we look at the special planning of those townships, we find that the Apartheid government controlled the movement of the population; making it difficult for people to enter or leave a township. Often there was one major point of entry and exit and no road connecting the different townships which prevent different racial groups from interacting. For example, it’s difficult for black people living in Alexandra to go to the Indian suburb of Malboro Gardens. One of the Apartheid government’s logics was that if there were riots or civil war, which was a fear in 1994, the Indian areas would act as a buffer between the black townships and white areas. We would be attacked first. Our townships were designed to be buffer zones.

NS: How and why have you incorporated South Africa Sign Language into your paintings of Indian locations?

HB: Okay, initially, I started with the South African hand signs used by deaf people. Then I included taxi hand signs as well.  At that time, I was doing a commission for an Indian dance show exploring different poses and hand signs from classical Indian dance.  I decided to compare South African Sign Language, taxi signs and classical Indian dance signs. I wanted to show appreciation of my identity as a deaf, South African Indian person.

I explore townships like Alexandra, Troyville, Lenasia, Jeppestown and Soweto. All these areas have their own taxi hand signs. I tried to compare the town planning and street layout of the townships with the more urban setting of the Johannesburg CBD, so you can see that the street layouts are very different. Racial and economic inequality, safety and all sorts of issues come to light just by looking at Apartheid-era special planning. During Apartheid times, the government tried to move Indians out of the Jo’burg CBD and into Lenasia.

NS: I’m loving this connection between the hand signs of your culture, the hand signs used in signing for deaf people and those used in South African’s streets, can you elaborate more on this connectivity?

HB: I use taxis. Even as a student, I travelled with taxis because the Metrobus was still new and not so great. I’d ask people or drivers where to get off or what signs to use to get here or there or how you get off the taxi. They were helpful. I think they were kind of surprised by an Indian guy riding a taxi because most commuters are black.  We used to have taxis in the townships. Durban also had taxis, and I’ve ridden taxis in Cape Town which is different from Jo’burg because they don’t use hand signs. They just have taxis going to specific places.

NS: After my head injury, I had to relearn practically everything like walking, talking and so on. I learnt how to speak again in English, so now I struggle with the African languages I knew.  I can understand for the most part but relearning is a hurdle of note. I bring that up because travelling in a taxi is weird if you speak English. You get that look.

HB: Ja, when you speak English in a taxi, all eyes stare at you. It’s like what is this guy doing speaking English in this taxi? You feel like an outsider.

NS: That’s always been an uncomfortable space because of the language thing. Whenever I use a taxi, I hope that my phone won’t ring because it’s awkward.

HB: I think that the language barrier exists everywhere in South Africa, even in Cape Town. If you’re in a taxi there and speak English, they’ll ask you why you aren’t speaking Afrikaans. Also, because I have a hearing problem, I had to go to speech therapy to learn how to speak. Because of the way I learned, I don’t have a South African accent, and some people assume I am not South African.

NS: Is there a correlation between South African sign language, taxi hand signs and Mundra classical Indian dance hand signs?

Hiten Bawa's artwork showing South African sign-language alphabetHB: There are a lot of similarities in how you communicate a concept. For example, if you want to get a taxi to Fourways, you put up four fingers. In South African sign language that’s number four. In classical Indian dance, the number four could mean another concept or a blessing. As a deaf person, when I see classical Indian dance, I can understand the story because the hand signals are almost like South African sign language. The dancers communicate without saying a word. Taxi signs are more functional; you just stand on the roadside and indicate your destination with a hand sign.

NS: Let’s talk about your art in more detail.

HB: Yeah, I’ve heard people say that compared to other artists, I have a lot of colour in my work that pops and jumps out at you.

NS: What medium do you use?

HB: Mostly acrylics and watercolours. I started with watercolour and moved on to acrylics. The maps are digital. I usually do architectural mapping by hand using pencil, ink and watercolour paint. It’s time-consuming and labour intensive, so I decided to do it digitally on a computer which takes me three weeks instead of the three months it takes me to do it by hand.

NS: Who generally buys your work?

HB: People who like my art usually contact me and then make an offer on whatever piece it is that pleases them. Some have a history with the building, so when they see one of my artworks of a particular building, they recognise it, connect with the story and buy it. Some like Indian culture and Indian dance and they buy work for that reason.

NS: Are you intentionally presenting stories, moments and histories of buildings and locations?

HB: Ja, I’m capturing and documenting those stories and providing a different perspective.

NS: I like the idea of incorporating accessibility into your work. For example, your taxi hand signs have added meaning for those who take taxis. South African sign language adds another layer of context for people who communicate through signing.

HB:  Not many people have access to that type of information. If you ask a white person in this country if they know the taxi hand signs, they’ll probably say no. I’m not just showing one world, I’m showing different worlds because in my life I move through different worlds. I live in the world of deaf people; I live in the world of the hard of hearing; the cochlea implant world; the hearing world; in the world of people with disability,  the Indian cultural world. So you see in any work that I do, I’m showing different worlds. Unlike other artists who show one world and show multiple artworks, my art deals with various worlds. We don’t all live in one small world; we live in different worlds; everyone creates their world. My job as an artist is to present these worlds that people don’t ever think about or encounter.

The excursions through the multitude of socially-conscious and vibrantly-coloured worlds presented by Hiten Bawa allowed me to see the beauty in my little worlds. During this time of COVID isolation, it was an artistic journey most would appreciate taking.


Hiten Bawa sitting on steps of a buildingHITEN BAWA is an artist, architect and accessibility consultant based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a profoundly deaf person with bilateral cochlear implants. He works primarily with acrylic paints, watercolours and inks to express his cultural identity and his perspectives as a person with disability. Hiten is currently working on designing barrier-free environments for people with disability across housing, transportation, and interior, urban and landscape design.


A colour photograph of Nolan Stevens standing near a wall covered in street art. He is wearing a light-blue peak cap and pointing to the wall.NOLAN STEVENS was born in exile in Swaziland but has lived the better part of his life in inner-city Johannesburg. Nolan works with ideas of Blackness in an Afro-urban context, exploring various aspects of black identity in his art-making, arts writing and curatorial projects. He was chosen as UK Unlimited’s 2018 international placement. The experience has shifted his perspective of how he views disability and how he sees himself as a disabled creative contributing to the understanding of disability arts. Nolan feels that justice for disabled people in South Africa is a struggle that must be placed in the forefront both in terms of infrastructure as well as public education.


Interview conducted by Nolan Stevens in Johannesburg.

Published 25 January 2021