'Johannesburg is for sale': Monuments to the eternal spaces

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Crossing Strangers marks Johannesburg based photographer Andile Buka's first published body of work. (Andile Buka)
Crossing Strangers marks Johannesburg based photographer Andile Buka's first published body of work. (Andile Buka)
  • Crossing Strangers marks Johannesburg based photographer Andile Buka's first published body of work.
  • Crossing Strangers is a photobook which explores the landscape of Johannesburg, the people who both inhabit and fill its city streets. 
  • Below and accompanying the book is an essay by Rangoato Hlasane. 

Johannesburg is for sale. I am not talking about Modderfontein or Soweto, but Johannesburg that claims its own post office code: 2000.  Ok, perhaps lets just say greater Johannesburg is for sale. The AUCTION/SOLD signs in the city are bewildering. Throughout the period 2004 and 2014 give or take, many art spaces have emerged and recessed, migrated and transformed in Johannesburg. Some are visible on the web, some in people’s memories. Few in print. My Making Space article in ‘COMPENDIUM’ (2013) aimed to collate in one space a hit-list of art spaces in Johannesburg. It kind of missed and that’s the problem with roll-calls…


The intention of the roll-call to artist’s spaces in Johannesburg is to provide a reference point for those who may be mistaken in thinking that they have no history to draw strength from and rewrite. Further intention is to arm future renegades and rebels against cultural imperialism to fight the white walls, the white labels, white presses and white classrooms, laboratories, libraries and other structural programmes.

The roll-call of spaces for art does many things; cultivates communities, mixes forms, self-organises, embrace transience, reveres music, Black youth-led operating outside of geographical or sectorial centres, #WordOfMouth visibility, evolves, generates networks, dreams up the impossible but new ecologies. Why would such spaces be wiped out? And what happens to dreamers? Do they become strangers? If not, what are the unifying factors?


Many of these initiatives have at their hearts a desire to create and a capacity to imagine. The inherent characteristic of transformation through art is at the centre of these spaces. Thus, even when the actions cease to exist, the spaces evolves in the imaginations of those who passed through them. The first should be their individual concerns. For example, the inclination towards visual forms of photography and film best manifested itself in a lounge setting for Mind Your Head, occupying # 2 Delvers Street in Johannesburg between 2006 and 2007.


In relation to intention, the desire to create (art) is at the heart of these spaces. Today, one can start a blog that becomes a space to experience shared concerns. Furthermore, actions that takes place in the physical world can be translated in various ways through the forms technology offers online: sound, photography, the moving image and text. However, in the period 2004, social encounters were limited to the use of physical space. As a result, very few of the initiatives above enjoyed the security of a physical space in which art experiences can occur. Thus the transient nature of some of the projects (Likwid Tongue, Reherb, Slaghuis) defied the notion of a physical place thus imagining space differently.


While word of mouth was an important platform for visibility, the use of the internet email extended the reach for Mzwandile Buthelezi’s contextually fluent poster series that marked Mind Your Head’s interdisciplinary offerings before the infiltration of Social Media. It is no surprise that after the Mind Your Head physical spaces became unsustainable, the project seeked to create an online visibility, and a range of other conceptual existences (including an event at Grayscale in 2010 and a film ‘His Majesty’s Building’ in 2013 as well as Mush Room Half Hour radio). I remember the words Fouad Asfour articulated, that these wiped out spaces become ‘monuments in people’s heads’.


Music forms a big part of these spaces to create art. It is a very interesting position that music occupies. For many of the spaces in the roll-call, making and listening to music seem to be the first and foremost intention. What is important is that music forms a big part of making mental monuments; music becomes a sensory trigger for memories created in these spaces. At the same time, music as a form is key to mobilising self-organised spaces. Further, the range of other disciplines that enhance the musical experience is absolutely crucial in understanding these micro-histories and how they have been recorded. In other words, the posters, film and photographic documentation created as part of the experiences in these spaces reinforce the intentions of making our own (black) spaces for art.

It is interesting to note how music have emerged in curated visual spaces in the mainstream art market recently. However, it important to note that the relationship between disciplines in the recent histories of independent spaces for art is fluid and not forced or ‘curated’. In other words, usually the ‘musician’ and ‘print-maker’ are networks already, if not one. The genres are not footnotes into a each other; they are the real encounters. For example, before Nolan Oswald Dennis (artist/architect) made a CD cover for The Brother Moves On, he has been making live drawings alongside the group’s performances. Dennis’s art history does not start with an Joburg Art Week stopover at the Goodman Gallery. The relationship between the genres and the artists have been fluid and coherent before mainstream forms of legitimacy – usually publicly declared through the machineries of white supremacies – rubberstamps.


It is true that ‘a tree without its roots’ will not bear fruit. In the current direction of pop-ups, concepts, curations, rooftop parties, inner city transient spaces and township attractions, it is important that young emerging cultural workers know their radical point of references. For it is too easy to celebrate the ‘new’ at the expense of history.  And in the light of the digital archive and making of histories, many of these spaces made their contributions during the transition from ‘word of mouth’ to ‘shares’.


Yet, who ‘built’ Jozi? Black people. Who owns Jozi? White supremacy. Who ‘runs’ Jozi? Black people. Who ‘loves’ Jozi? White supremacy. One thing is for sure, the children of white supremacy are back in the ‘inner city’ only because they like the idea of Joburg (read ‘city’, as encapsulated by First Thursdays)[1]. When they revel in ‘world class’ European cities they claim Joburg as their area codes while the real codes link them to the northern suburbs of this province, Johannesburgly speaking. 

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