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True grit: Art powers Joburg’s unique urban transformation

The uniqueness of Joburg’s inner city lies in the vibrant artistic spaces that can be found scattered across the often rough and chaotic metropolis. There are many current and planned developments that are revitalising the City; dirty, neglected areas and no-go zones are being transformed into places ‘to be seen’ and to ‘hang out’. These developments are at different locations throughout the inner city, but they all have one thing in common: they are using the arts as a means to reinvigorate and stimulate growth and investment in the City.

Unique in Joburg city
© Media Club South Africa (

Art is at the centre of all of these new developments in Joburg. With cutting-edge architecture, the incorporation of public art, enticing living and working spaces, exquisite cuisine and a lively atmosphere, these spaces are turning the City into an artist’s and art lover’s dream. Through the power and positivity of art, this unique South African city is starting to see much-deserved upliftment and transformation.
     These spaces provide artists with a place to explore their creativity while being inspired by the buzzing city around them. The inner city’s art map is littered with creative spaces. For example, there are performance hubs like William Kentridge’s Centre for the Less Good Idea, and whole buildings that cater exclusively for artists’ studios like August House and the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios, spaces that cater to very specific art making like The Workhorse Bronze Foundry, or provide a collective creative energy for artists like Ellis House and No. One Eloff.
     Some parts of Joburg have already been successfully converted, like the Newtown Precinct, which lies at the heart of the city’s regeneration and reinvention of itself. Newtown is a fairly large area that lies sandwiched between the railway lines to the north, the M2 highway in the south and is bounded in the east and west by West Street and Quinn Street respectively. It has a distinctly cosmopolitan vibe; and underlying its trendy coffee shops, restaurants, art galleries and clubs is the same avant-garde attitude that made it a hotbed of protest theatre, music and poetry during the apartheid era.

Unique in Joburg city
Nelson Mandela Bridge © Media Club South Africa

     What makes Newtown so accessible is the Nelson Mandela Bridge, which links it to Braamfontein, home of the Wits Art Museum and gallery spaces like Kalashnikovv. Newtown is a mixed-use area with a vibrant and unique character, particularly if you take its cultural facilities into account. It is home to the renowned Market Theatre, which played such an important role in South African theatre during the apartheid era, committed as it was to non-racial theatre right from 1976, where a run-down Edwardian market hall was converted into a cultural arena that provided a platform for some of the country’s best actors and playwrights.
     Centred on Mary Fitzgerald Square, Newtown is packed with museums, art galleries, craft workshops, dance studios, live music venues, nightclubs, bars and restaurants. Among Newtown Cultural Precinct’s more famous landmarks are Museum Africa, the Market Theatre, the Turbine Hall with the Forum restaurant, Sci-Bono Discovery Centre and the various dance studios. Events like the RMB Turbine Art Fair, great theatre and wonderful exhibitions, like the recent The Wonders of Rock Art: Lascaux Cave and Africa exhibition at Sci-Bono, all add to the unique atmosphere.

Unique in Joburg city
Maboneng PHOTO South African Tourism

     Maboneng is the trendy place that was featured by Lonely Planet as the neighbourhood to look out for in Joburg. This once-gritty neighbourhood has reinvented itself, with cool coffee shops, cultural spaces and a vibrant street-art scene. Since it’s establishment in 2009, the neighbourhood has been well received by locals and visitors alike as a great spot for getting some of the best arts and culture that Joburg has to offer.
     While in Maboneng, visit the Museum of African Design – the first of its kind on the continent – head over to The Bioscope for a unique movie experience or sip a cocktail at The Living Room, an awesome rooftop venue that overlooks the gorgeous city skyline and makes you feel like you’re sitting in a greenhouse or nursery. Stop by the Standard Bank Gallery, a space that has been providing the City with exhibitions of local and international artworks for almost three decades. Spend some time at the largest second-hand bookstore on the continent at Collectors Treasury, which is located in an eight-storey building, 44 Commissioner Street, on the east side of Joburg’s CBD and was founded in 1974. It’s said to be the largest bookstore in the Southern Hemisphere, hosting over one million books in stock, as well as maps, artworks, antiques and over 300 000 vinyl records. If you’re collecting, this is unequivocally your spot to visit. There are also plenty of restaurants in the area and numerous coffee stands to get your caffeine fix at. Or go to the Marabi Club, which offers food and drinks accompanied by live jazz performances. Situated in the basement of award-winning British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye’s Hallmark House, which is also a boutique hotel, it evokes a vibrant history through the many careful details of the club’s interior.

Unique in Joburg city
William Kentridge in The Centre for the Less Good Idea PHOTO Zivanai Matangi

     Down the road at Arts on Main is The Centre for the Less Good Idea, which creates and supports experimental, collaborative and cross-disciplinary arts projects. The Centre was founded by Kentridge as a physical and immaterial space to pursue incidental discoveries made in the process of producing work. Often, you start with a good idea, it might seem crystal clear at first, but when you take it to the proverbial drawing board, cracks and fissures emerge in its surface, and they cannot be ignored. It is in following the secondary ideas, those less good ideas coined to address the first idea’s cracks, that the Centre nurtures, arguing that in the act of playing with an idea, you can recognise those things you didn’t know in advance but knew somewhere inside of you.
     The Centre is a space to follow impulses, connections and revelations. It’s a physical space for artists to come together over two seasons every year and for curators to bring together combinations of text, performance, image and dance. The Centre believes an ensemble sees the world differently to how one individual does. It is a safe space for failure, for projects to be tried and discarded because they do not work. It’s a space for short-form work that doesn’t have a natural home in a theatre or gallery.
     There are other locations that are still being developed, such as the small suburb of Lorentzville, which lies between Bertrams and Judith’s Paarl. Lorentzville’s newest revitalised space, Victoria Yards, is currently being extended phase-by-phase. It is just past Maboneng, around the corner from the Troyeville Hotel, right across the road from Nando’s Central Kitchen, a couple of blocks away from Ellis Park Stadium, a stone’s throw from Joburg’s very own China Town, and a few hundred metres from Nicholas Hlobo’s private studio in a converted synagogue.

Unique in Joburg city
The Victoria Yards

     Victoria Yards, according to Nando’s annual publication Clout, ‘is a collection of early 20th-century warehouses and industrial buildings that spans 30 000 square metres. By the time developer Brian Green and a few partners came upon it, it was derelict. Which suited Green just fine – as the man behind the popular 44 Stanley in Milpark, he’s well versed in transforming down-and-out properties destined for demolition into desirable destinations.
     ‘Green and his team spent much of 2017 developing Victoria Yards into a creative hub. “The idea was to turn it into an urban city farm, I wanted to fill it with artists and artisans, and some kind of educational element that would slot into a specific gap in the South African educational market, specifically towards artisanal skill sets development,” he explains. Although still a work in progress, there remains a strong focus on the development of the surrounding community through work as well as educational training opportunities. “We want to formalise training so that people can come in from the community and walk out with an artisanal accreditation.”’
     The rawness of the buildings is too extraordinary not to be inspired by, especially the layered history that is so visible  on the walls. The intention of the space is to create an opportunity for creatives to build and grow their businesses surrounded by other like-minded people. It is home to a number of different spaces, from a coffee roastery and a gin distillery to a gallery and studios for acclaimed artists such as Blessing Ngobeni, Roger Ballen and Ayanda Mabulu.

Unique in Joburg city
Turbine Hall PHOTO Andrew Moore

     ‘Perhaps one of the most striking features of Victoria Yards is its walls, which have not been painted or plastered over. “I love what Brian’s doing in exposing the layers as opposed to covering them up,” says Brett McDougall of the Joburg Heritage Foundation. “When I look around, I see the various textures of brickwork, right from the stone base of the original 1913 buildings through to later periods. From a heritage perspective, the buildings tell a story.”’
     There is another exciting new project that has just been announced: Absa Towers Main and Jewel City will be redeveloped. The R2-billion development is located in the eastern CBD of Joburg on Fox Street, placed between the existing Maboneng and Absa precincts where six city blocks of the Joburg CBD and the iconic Absa Towers Main building will be redeveloped to create a new urban precinct that will enhance and bring even more visitors into existing art spaces like the Absa Gallery. Following a competitive bidding process, the 30-storey Absa Towers Main building will be redeveloped into a one-of-a-kind mixed-use building for South Africa, including 520 affordably priced residential rental apartments, a floor for coffee shops, restaurants and recreation, ground floor convenience retail, child-care facilities, a public park, integrated public transport facilities and a wealth of public art.

Artist’s impression of Jewel City

     Absa will also be leasing back nine floors of office space in the redeveloped building. Besides creating an inclusive new world-class ‘live, work, play’ environment, the project is also designed to enhance the area as a whole. As part of a wider neighbourhood development initiative, a pedestrian-friendly walkway with street furniture, lighting and art will be created from Absa Towers Main all the way to Maboneng. This unique urban intervention will prioritise pedestrians and people of the local community above vehicular traffic.
     But it’s not just private property developers who are working to bring art into the city. The Johannesburg Development Agency and The Trinity Session’s Art My Jozi programme has, and will continue to, breathed life into the streets of Joburg through its artistic projects. This multi-faceted approach to planning, design and management capitalises on the local community’s assets, inspiration and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote health, happiness and well-being.
     Rebuilding the inner city of Joburg is not a quick fix, it’s a medium- to long-term strategic initiative, but as many of these revitalised areas have shown, art plays an important role in making it successful.

Read more about our a competition to find a unique and interesting image for our November cover in The pink elephant and read about the finalists in What’s your Joburg?

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