in Critic's Guides | 13 OCT 13
Featured in
Issue 158

City Report: Johannesburg

The philosopher Achille Mbembe once called Johannesburg the ‘elusive metropolis’. From emerging project spaces to women’s labour issues, Sean O’Toole and Gabi Ngcobo report on this constantly changing city of 4.5 million inhabitants, in which a strong photographic tradition — that includes David Goldblatt, Zanele Muholi and Santu Mofokeng — provides something of an anchor

in Critic's Guides | 13 OCT 13

Sean O’Toole

Johannesburg rarely inspires plaudits, either from nervously curious visitors or the 4.5 million inhabitants who commune in this agitated, sprawling, bombastic, insecure and, at heart, deeply musical metropolis. Perhaps it is a marker of Johannesburg’s being that it inspires something between ambiguous disbelief and out-and-out contempt. It is worth cataloguing some of the insults – they contribute towards sketching a loose profile of this get-rich city, which was formally founded in 1886 on a corrugated savannah. The promise of gold was the only reason for its landlocked position.

Novelist Olive Schreiner – whose 1883 novel The Story of an African Farm speaks to an enduring artistic genre, one that Johannesburg and its brash cosmopolitanism resists – gave her address as ‘hell’ when she visited the corrugated precursor to the vertical concrete metropolis that exists today. Someone – variously claimed to be either Winston Churchill, Boer president Paul Kruger or British general William Butler – described Johannesburg as ‘Monte Carlo superimposed on Sodom and Gomorrah’. A.A. Gill was reminded of Los Angeles; Salif Keïta, the silky Malian crooner, of New York. Irvine Welsh, whose novel Marabou Stork Nightmares (1995) is partly set in Johannesburg, thought it ‘a large Muirhouse-in-the-sun’, a not-too-kind comparison to the Edinburgh housing estate. 

Akona Kenqu, from the series ‘Society’, 2009–10, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and Market Photo Workshop

Writers of all stripes have tried their hand at locating the elusive character of this superlative-inclined city. Few have succeeded. Underlying all these attempts is a simple article of faith. ‘We fancy she matters,’ wrote Lionel Abrahams in a 1956 issue of The Purple Renoster, the literary magazine he edited. ‘We imagine her a microcosm of the world; a special, tough testing-ground of truths and aspirations.’ A half-century later, a few months after Abrahams’s death in May 2004, Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe guest-edited the autumn 2004 issue of Public Culture, a journal published by Duke University. The two Johannesburg-based social scientists, husband and wife, devoted the entire issue to the city. Writing in the introduction, they described Johannesburg as an ‘elusive metropolis’, delivering a popular catchphrase and useful appellation for summarizing the city’s peripheral spread and many lapses into incoherence.

Photography, arguably more than the written word, has done a better job at defining and locating the city. Over the last few decades it has shown itself to be a particularly supple medium for negotiating the city’s perpetual flux. ‘Johannesburg is not a place you can apprehend in any fixed way; it reveals itself as a continually shifting phenomenon,’ says photographer Jo Ractliffe. Working with a cheap Holga camera, its plastic framing device removed, Ractliffe spent four years intensely photographing the city, adopting the drifting, automobile logic of Johannesburg to capturing the city’s shifting scenography. The outcome was Johannesburg Inner City Works (2000–04), a series of photographic montages that present Johannesburg, in Ractliffe’s words, as ‘a place where the familiar slips into the unknown and unsettles comfortableness’. 

In his 2006 book Portrait with Keys, a collage of impressionistic word-sketches and narrative vignettes that share a conceptual affinity to Ractliffe’s photos, novelist Ivan Vladislavić describes his home city as a place that ‘resists the imagination’. It is a useful insight, one that possibly helps account for why non-fiction – one thinks of the spirited journalism of Lewis Nkosi and Can Themba, or the revisionist histories of Charles van Onselen, Tim Couzens and Jonathan Hyslop – has done a better job in portraying this loose, still-fragmented city. It may also account for the preponderance of documentary photography: in a place that ‘changes too swiftly’, as Abrahams wrote in his 1986 poem Thoughts on Johannesburg’s Centenary, photography is more than just a redoubt, it is a way of affirming what is constantly changing, disappearing. 

David Goldblatt, The women’s hostel, Alexandra Township, June 26 2009, pigment ink on cotton rag paper, 84 × 119 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town and Johannesburg

For six decades, David Goldblatt – who lives in the miniscule suburb of Fellside – has been photographically affirming Johannesburg. Not just its various peoples, immigrants all, but its structures too, which are as much functional as vestigial, reminders of an apartheid past. When I interviewed him in May, Goldblatt, who speaks with a rugged intelligence not dissimilar John Berger or Norman Mailer, told me: ‘For me, Jo’burg is like an itch. Every now and then I have to scratch it. It comes and goes in different parts of the body so I scratch here, I scratch there, but seldom in the same place twice.’

Goldblatt, who collaborated with Nadine Gordimer – the author and wife of Reinhold Cassirer, William Kentridge’s first dealer – on his first book of photographs, On the Mines (1973), is not the only photographer to make Johannesburg explicable. There is Peter Magubane, whose hasty, pungent images of the 1976 student revolt in Soweto – that former labour compound transforming into a viable, proudly black edge city – showed Santu Mofokeng, then a street photographer, that ‘photography could be an honourable, dignified and important career’. A decade later, Mofokeng produced his first essay, Train Church (1986), a document of the claustrophobic worship ceremonies on Soweto commuter trains, which forms the foundation of an ongoing project describing the penumbra of faith in lives defined by material poverty. 

In 1989, Goldblatt helped establish the Market Photo Workshop. Its remit was simple: to make photography accessible to a broader demographic than white apartheid culture allowed. Lesbian rights activist and photographer Zanele Muholi is a graduate of this institution, as is Jodi Bieber, perhaps best known for her iconic portrait of Bibi Aisha, the young mutilated Afghan woman featured on the cover of Time magazine in August 2010. Mack Magagane, Musa Nxumalo, Akona Kenqu, Jerry Gaegane and Dahlia Maubane represent its future. But there is more to Johannesburg than photography and the medium there remains poorly supported: the city has no commercial gallery devoted solely to it. 

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The city’s patrician elites – there are 23,400 millionaires in Johannesburg, more than in Africa's next two weathiest cities (Cairo and Lagos) combined – still hanker after paintings of empty landscapes and tribal cliché. A surplus of wealth is, however, buoying the art scene. Since 2008, Johannesburg has been home to sub-Saharan Africa’s first viable art fair – commerce, not biennials, being something this city instinctively understands. In turn, new practices are emerging, many clustered on the eastern edge of the old central business district, especially Doornfontein, long a site of musical experiment and cultural resistance to the orthodoxies of the city’s capitalist elite.

Like earlier pioneering groups and spaces – including the Bantu Men’s Social Centre; Dorkay House, where John Kani, Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona’s staged their landmark play The Island in 1974; Possession Arts, which included performance artist John Nankin, sculptor and painter Joachim Schönfeldt and gifted critic Ivor Powell; as well as the Famous International Gallery, an experimental space founded by painter Wayne Barker in the late 1980s – Johannesburg’s new vanguard not only clusters in the same geographic space but similarly works collaboratively. Key venues and groupings include: Donna Kukama, Kemang Wa Lehulere and Gabi Ngcobo’s Center for Historical Reenactments, a mobile platform for exhibition-making and engagement; Rangoato Hlasane’s Keleketla! Library, an independent library and media arts project fashioned after the ideas of murdered anti-apartheid activist and artist Thami Mnyele; and Parking Gallery, a self-described ‘malleable’ artist-run project space founded by Simon Gush, a neo-conceptualist interested in the city’s labour movements.

‘Often these projects bring together several disciplinary approaches, including urban mapping and anthropological-ethnographic research’, says Bettina Malcomess, an artist who has collaborated with painter Dorothee Kreutzfeldt on Not No Place (2013), an impressionistic non-fiction book that presents Johannesburg as a set of conceptual terrains – the book is loosely modelled after Walter Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project (1927–40). ‘Many artists base themselves at studios in the inner city. It’s a very real place, it’s also difficult and there are many competing visions and narratives that lay claim to the space.’ Amplified beyond the block or neighbourhood to the city scale, the insight holds true of Johannesburg more broadly, a place of unlovely commercial sprawl and near subterranean clusters of imaginative resistance.

Sean O’Toole is a writer and co-editor of CityScapes, a critical journal for urban enquiry. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa. 

David Goldblatt, On Eloff Street, 1967, silver gelatine print on fibre-based paper. 30 x 40 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town and Johannesburg

Gabi Ngcobo

In 2009, artist Donna Kukama created a work titled The Swing (after, after Fragonard). The five-minute video of a public performance is shot from above, and shows Kukama in a white dress swinging from a bridge on a narrow makeshift seat, throwing ZAR10 notes (equivalent to one euro at the time) to a crowd that is slowly but forcefully gathering below her. What we don’t know from the video is that, after the artist had thrown the last note and swung out of the frame, she crashed to the ground, breaking her right leg. The site where the work was staged, Kwa-Mai-Mai, is a traditional healer’s market that also does a thriving trade in fire-grilled meat, run exclusively by women for a largely male, mini-bus and taxi-driver clientele. The work was, in part, a response to an incident a few weeks prior, in which a young woman was physically abused by the drivers because the mini-skirt she was wearing was against their ‘traditional’ norms.

In early 2013, the Center for Historical Reenactments (CHR) – a pseudo-institution and collaborative project I co-founded with Kukama and another artist, Kemang Wa-Lehulere – revisited the site where The Swing was staged with the aim of privileging the moment of the fall. What transpired was a 14-minute video, titled After-after Tears: Wie Sien Ons?, that is partially a documentary. In it, we interview feminist economist Lyn Ossome who observes that Kukama’s video and the dynamics of the market ‘may lead us theoretically to a reckoning of the true meaning of surplus value: women’s appropriated labour [...] it may – in reference to Marx’s labour theory of value – lead us politically to the factories, the working conditions, the living spaces, the food and the clothing of those who produce wealth that is expropriated from them’.

Center for Historical Reenactments, Na Ku Randza, 2011, installation and mural of musician Gito Baloi at the corner of Kerk and Nugget Streets where he was gunned down in 2004. Photograph: Sanele Manqele

‘Wie sien ons?’ is itself an Afrikaans term used in certain parts of South Africa to refer to ‘after-burial parties’ otherwise known as ‘after tears parties’ that have, in response to the country’s high death rate, become a popular part of youth culture in many townships. ‘Wie sien ons?’ translates as ‘Who sees us?’, although it’s not clear if the question is posed by the dead or by the living. It does, however, highlight issues of visibility. What I find fascinating about Johannesburg are the dynamics I watch play out from my 14th-floor apartment, which is situated right in the middle of the city. Johannesburg is on a constant loop, it seems, full of occasional dramas. Since moving to this part of the city in February, even though I still set my alarm clock, I do not have to rely on it to know what time it is. I’ve grown accustomed to the rhythm or, better still, the soundtrack of the place: the horns of the mini-buses, the dude who sells alarm clocks at the corner of Joubert and Kerk streets, and the man who sells cheesy, old-school music which he plays repeatedly for weeks on end. I have been obsessively observing the city below me, especially in the stillness of the night. Johannesburg empties out when workers leave for the various townships; just before midnight, middle-aged women come out to sweep the streets. This aspect of women’s labour is captured in Sabelo Mlangeni’s 2006 photographic series, ‘Invisible Women’. He spent eight months documenting these workers; his black and white images give visibility to their otherwise spectral presence. At times, he captures the rapid movements of the women in a way that renders them ghostly; however, he also names them, and we become witness to their working environment. Even though the women are dressed in high-vis uniforms, the series highlights their invisibility. Like the rubbish they make disappear from our eyes every night, their labour is disposable. The sound of the garbage trucks and the shouts of the men who collect what they have gathered is the cue that the women’s work is done. In Mlangeni’s images, we see them walking away (photographs of this are part of a sub-series titled ‘Clocking Off’).

I moved to Jo’burg in June 2010 when preparations for the FIFA World Cup, which South Africa hosted, were in full swing. I arrived as Mary Sibande’s billboards were being installed throughout the city, from Braamfontein to Doornfontein. Titled Long Live the Dead Queen, they depicted Sibande’s alter-ego ‘Sophie’, a black domestic worker wearing extravagant Victorian dresses in bright green and blue, which recall the uniforms of domestic workers. Domestic labour is one of the biggest forms of employment for black women, who have historically worked as maids in the homes of white people and, for the last 20 years, in the homes of middle-class black people. Jo’burg’s present image, face-lifted for the World Cup, is maintained by women; from the pristine Rea Vaya bus terminals to the stadiums built to host the sporting event.

From my 14th-floor perspective, women’s labour is also made visible in the washing lines that are a picturesque feature on the rooftops of nearby buildings. On Nugget Street, sex-workers operate in appallingly precarious conditions with no protection from the law. ‘To immaterialize woman’s existentiality within this system’, says Ossome, ‘is to [...] maintain woman in increasingly dangerous work even as she satisfies capital’s heterosexist, classed and gendered greed [...] It is to obscure her stories of home, of working conditions, of living spaces, of abuse.’ 

Sabelo Mlangeni, Invisible Woman I, 2006, silver gelatin print, 48 × 70 cm. Courtesy: the artists and Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg

Is Jo’burg a man? It would be unfair to make such a claim. Jo’burg is everybody but not at the same time. It is the woman in a red dress prancing about in Dineo Bopape’s video The Eclipse Will Not Be Visible to the Naked Eye (2009). It is Zanele Muholi’s photographic series of black queer women ‘Faces and Phases’ (2007–ongoing); Nandipha Mntambo’s Emabutfo (2009), an installation of women’s torsos moulded in cowhide arranged in a somewhat ghostly army formation, as if ready for combat. At the foot of Queen Elizabeth Bridge, William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx’s ten-metre-high figure of a woman carrying a burning brazier on her head, The Fire Walker (2010), is a monument to a system that constantly tries but fails to overwhelm, injure and mock her out of existence.

This is my Jo’burg: it’s hard to explain, hard to explain away.

Gabi Ngcobo is an independent curator and co-founder of the Center for Historical Reenactments and faculty at the Wits School of Arts, University of Witswatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.