Johannesburg, The other greatest city

The revitalisation of Johannesburg’s inner city is tentative but real. Angelique Serrao looks at how the visual arts are participating in this process

Julia Charlton has a lot to be excited about. For this curator of the Wits Art Gallery, the rejuvenation of Johannesburg’s gritty inner city means she will soon get a new museum to call home.

The gallery she manages has been closed to the public since 2002 and its extensive African art collection has been gathering dust in storage rooms around Wits University.

Charlton says that when the university chose a new location for her gallery, it looked to the east, on the corner of Bertha and Jorissen streets, because not only is it close to the Wits Cultural Precinct, which houses the theatre and school of arts, but it also intersects with a section of Braamfontein which the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) is giving a makeover. This, she says, is in keeping with the university’s idea of having a “place where Wits shakes hands with the city”.

The university ran an architectural design competition for its new gallery a year ago, eventually selecting Nina Cohen, Fiona Garson and William Martinson’s innovative proposal from a shortlist that included proposals by Mashabane Rose, a consortium made up of Kate Otten and Clive van Berg, and the partnership, Joubert Comrie Wilkinson.

“Their design was unique in that it did not have a slash and burn approach and they are going to create a new building around the existing one,” says Charlton of the winning proposal.

The idea is for the gallery to be accessible and the ground floor will have large windows and a coffee shop inviting passers-by to come inside.

“The JDA plans to get the broken rotating restaurant on top moving again,” adds Charlton.

This new contemporary gallery won’t come cheap. It will cost around R35-million to build. The university will hold an exhibition showcasing the design in September and will start raising funds from then, although it could be a long wait until the new building is unveiled.

The problem of waiting on funds is something Stephen Hobbs can relate to. The JDA has commissioned his art consultancy firm, Trinity Session, to do a public art work project from Newtown, through Braamfontein and ending at Constitution Hill – also dubbed the cultural arc – and promised him R10-million. He is still waiting for the funds.

The projected Wits Gallery and the Trinity Session’s Premises Gallery, housed in a purpose-built annex to the Civic Theatre, dot the middle of this cultural route. Planning and discussions around the public art works have been ironed out but little can be done until the money comes through.

Hobbs’ enthusiasm for the project hasn’t wavered though: “We are excited about the key things that are happening on the arc like the developments around Constitution Hill and the Wits gallery — they show fundamental changes in the city.”

If anything has shown that this cultural arc can be a success it is Constitution Hill. When it was opened last year, it attracted over 60-thousand visitors.

Recently an international Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience visited Constitution Hill and invited it to be an institution member, the second in South Africa after the District Six Museum.

The coalition is a network of global historic museums striving to redefine the role museums play in the civic life of their communities. According to the coalition’s guidelines, a Site of Conscience has to be a place that not only preserves a cultural or environmental resource but also stimulates dialogue on pressing social issues.

Recent initiatives evidencing this aspect of its function include public discussions on crime and criminality. Jonny Steinberg, author of The Number, has been a guest speaker, as to has Mikhael Subotzky, whose photographic studies of Western Cape prisons have elicited significant attention. (His work has been accepted onto a group show scheduled for 2006 at New York’s International Centre for Photography.) Other notable guest speakers include visiting academic Cornell West, who delivered a lecture on the legacy and meaning of Nelson Mandela.

The subject of his talk was geographically apt. The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory Project, one of the museums successful public projects, was launched at roughly the same time as the coalition’s visit. The project represents an on-going compilation of archival material related to Mandela’s life and his works from across the world. The centre is compiling a website so off-site visitors will be able to view these materials.

It will also be releasing a book, titled A Prisoner in a Garden, in November. The book’s selling points are its high quality images and archival photos that have never been seen before.

The energy and optimism underpinning initiatives around the cultural arc have, however, had to contend with central Johannesburg’s pressing social realities. Crime is a big concern. Late last year, Andrew Meintjes, a pioneering figure in local photography who chose to base himself in

Braamfontein, was fatally shot. Only his cellphone was stolen. In the same week, Louis Zondeleni Ngcobo, manager of the Braamfontein Recreation Centre, was also murdered.

Despite these events the idea of a centralised arts district has resonated with many, including young artists and independent art entrepreneurs with smaller budgets than Wits or Constitution Hill. Michael MacGarry, Zander Blom and Marcel Waldeck, all practicing artists, recently hosted a one-night art show in a disused building overlooking Nelson Mandela Bridge.

Michael Obert, whose Melrose Arch gallery represents painter Kudzanai Chiurai, has also mooted plans to move his enterprise to Braamfontein. Henri Vergon, meanwhile, has already taken the leap of faith and set up shop.

Formerly with the French Institute in South Africa (IFAS), Vergon recently opened Afronova Modern and Contemporary Art opposite the entrance to the Market Theatre, in the old Yard of Ale premises.

“Newtown is a crossroads for movers from theatre, television, dance and the other creative industries,” he says. “It also has the highest concentration of artist’s studios in the country.” Included amongst these is the Fordsburg Artists Studios, home to David Koloane, Sam Nhlengethwa and, most recently, Tracey Rose.

Already open for business, Vergon’s gallery will only formally launch in September. Local artist Samson Mnisi will show alongside Gera Mawi Mazgabu, an Ethiopian artist whose work has been included on Africa Remix, an international travelling exhibition curated by Simon Njami.

One of the key attractions of the Newtown area, says Vergon, is its authenticity, “a genuine village life in the heart of the city”.

Amidst all this activity, it remains uncertain whether the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) will decamp from its current location, adjacent Joubert Park, and move to a new venue on the cultural arc. Such a move would certainly enhance the arc’s early promise and significant potential.Angelique Serrao is a journalist with The Saturday Star