These innovative projects are getting art on billboards

Whereas passers-by would usually be greeted with advertising by big brands, evocative artworks by major and upcoming artists now grace large billboards in Joburg and Cape Town. Pictures: Supplied
Whereas passers-by would usually be greeted with advertising by big brands, evocative artworks by major and upcoming artists now grace large billboards in Joburg and Cape Town. Pictures: Supplied


Covid-19 has changed the world in ways large and small. The advertising industry has seen a 25% decrease in revenue since the global pandemic started.

A reduction of traffic on the roads means adverts on billboards get less eyes, and many brands have chosen to pull their billboards to save cash.

But it’s not all wasted space. Artists have taken notice of the empty boards and are utilising them to showcase their work.

Cape Town painter, sculptor and film maker MJ Lourens loves billboards and often depicts them in his paintings. One night at a party, Lourens met Jason Nolan, who works for a billboard company called Giant Ads.

Nolan says: “MJ had always wanted to do a billboard of one of his paintings. Of course I laughed at him, as billboards on busy roads are extremely expensive to rent. We are a small company and couldn’t afford to give away the space for free and not earn the R65 000 per month.”

But then things changed.

“Recently, I bumped into him again and the situation has changed. Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, there is a lot of empty billboard space all over the country. Even in prime spots such as along the N1 highway in Cape Town.”

Nolan offered Lourens their Paarden Eiland spot on the N1. The artist chose his work – Old routes/Ou roetes – to go up there.

“I think that, with all the empty space going to waste, it is an opportunity to support the South African arts and artists,” says Nolan.

“We are a small company with a few sites. But it would be great if some of the big firms such as JC Decaux or Primedia could come on board.

“We can beautify our cities with South African art, and also market the artists and give them a helping hand during these tough times.”

Highway Notice Project

Meanwhile, in the City of Gold, inimitable artist and founder of the Centre for The Less Good Idea William Kentridge, recently launched the Highway Notice project.

The aim is to get artists to interact with their audiences again as many gallery spaces are still closed.

For the next six months, billboards along the M1 and M2 highways in Joburg will feature works by poets, writers and visual artists.

Koleka Putuma, Upile Chisala, Frank Meintjies, Oratile Konopi, Linda Rademan, Wezile Mgibe, Jessica Webster, Sindiso Nyoni and Kentridge himself will feature on the billboards. Unlike the Giant Ads/Lourens collaboration, this project is paid for.

So far, two billboards created by Kentridge have gone up. They display the words ‘breathe’ and ‘weigh all tears’.

Works by Nyoni and Konopi will go up next month.

The billboards are based on a series of works by Kentridge called Blue Rubrics. They are made with blue lapis lazuli mixed into an ink that is then silk-screened on to encyclopaedic paper.

“Breathe has a three-fold meaning at this time,” says Kentridge. “Covid-19 attacks the lungs and very obviously has constrained our ability to breathe.

“Then, in the midst of the pandemic, we had the very distressing killing of George Floyd in the US and his words ‘I can’t breathe’ [sparked global outrage]. The work resonated and amplified the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Lastly, breathe in relation to what is happening on the planet right now and the implications of the climate crisis.”

Kentridge says “weigh all tears” is a phrase he heard many years ago from a poet, and it refers to the significance of our tears, mourning and sorrow – that they do hold weight:

“Each individual’s pain in and among the pain across the world is significant and needs to be given attention,” he says

  • To celebrate the erection of his billboard, Lourens is giving one lucky winner a chance to win one of his coveted paintings. For more information and a chance to win, follow him on Instagram @mj.lourens


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