A series of books titled Wake Up, This is Joburg got me thinking about how people find their place in Johannesburg, an African metropolis layered with complexity. Everybody here seems to have their city limits, travelling routes that become well-worn grooves in the map. Maybe it’s that way in all cities, maybe not. We grow accustomed to tracing the same paths, yearning for familiarity. But our paths through the city are as much defined by that desire to affirm what we already know as they are intricately arranged by economies that draw us to the paths we think we choose.
To travel a city like Johannesburg freely , with its spaces so clearly demarcated, is often transgressive, also brave. And lately that idea of travelling the city has been corrupted by marketing campaigns for public events that implore one to “take back the city”, as if the city is there for the taking, either virgin territory unconquered and waiting to be possessed or a place to be wrested from someone else’s control. It is as if – to travel the city out of curiosity you need a licence.
In creating their 10-book series Wake Up, This is Joburg, Tanya Zack and Mark Lewis found what Zack wryly refers to as their “excuse to explore the city”, a search for narratives and images to reveal stories about people whose lives shape and are shaped by Johannesburg, people who call Johannesburg home.
Zack is an urban planner, and Lewis, a photographer. The books are slim volumes with boldly coloured jackets, their slightness belying the universes contained within them. The first four have been published, and each offers up a piece of Joburg’s story.
In S’kop Zack and Lewis encounter an informal butchery preparing cow’s heads in what was a disused parking garage in Kazerne. In Zola, they describe the overflow rank for hundreds of minibus taxis waiting under the Mooi Street off-ramp between peak hours to ferry their human cargo between the inner city and Soweto. Under the off-ramp a dizzying array of entrepreneurial activities takes place with the purpose of catering to the drivers’ needs, including the sale of bumper stickers with messages like ‘You also drive like shit so fuck off’, writes Zack.
In Inside Out the duo bring back the stories of Yeoville Market traders, of the finely tuned economics of trading and of survival. Tony Dreams in Yellow and Blue leads the reader to the working-class suburb of Turffontein and the migrant dreams of Tony from Madeira brought to life by a vibrant landscape fashioned from waste.
“Not seeking to find conclusions, but rather to tell stories, to describe” is how they frame their travels but of course the notion is fraught, as unintentional themes arise giving shape to Zack and Lewis’ interests. Still, it is early to draw conclusions when six more volumes have yet to complete the series.
In Zola, Zack describes the gathering of 600 taxis under the freeway as a “binding point” rather a rank. A rank has an imposed structure; a binding point creates its own structure. It’s a perfect description of Joburg, a binding point where lives are loosely knitted into the city’s fabric, with threads from everywhere, places as far apart as DRC and Madeira. Each thread is a spinning world, until something causes a tautening of the threads, and a collision of lives and worlds.
The seemingly unrelated stories of places and people that Zack and Lewis encounter are also bound together by the notion of Joburg as ‘home’, a complicated space, often more a place to reside rather than one of safety and comfort as the word home conjures. Home is a place to survive and these are stories of that survival, of trading, of seeking refuge, of xenophobia and refugees, migrants and the search for security, of family, of men, of women, of community, of micro-economies that power the city, and of the world. The stories have been gathered not just by a single look or visit, but in some cases say Zack and Lewis, by relationships built over years. The evidence is in the photographs, the intimate portraits alluding to a level of trust built between the photographer and his subject. I have been a fan of Lewis’s work since his exhibition Hotel Grande, Beira, Mozambique. He plays with light, finding unexpected colour in places that the untrained eye might perceive as bleak.
In Joburg you could be forgiven for thinking Africa is a country, a polyglot universe of interconnected lives. Inside Out opens with Zack’s description – “Each product carries a tale of a journey from a place that people have left behind, but that lingers …” – one as easily applied to the market produce she refers to as to the traders. Stories are everywhere, told in different languages.
Zach and Lewis are interpreter and translator, and within the covers each story is told in multiple ways, through Zack’s text, through Lewis’ powerful portraiture, through the interplay of both, through translation (each text carries its own translation, S’kop in Zulu, Inside Out in French) and through what is left unsaid.
Wake up, This is Joburg is an entreaty to examine one’s own city limits, to look at little closer at the way things are and perhaps to imagine how else they might be.
* Wake Up, This is Joburg is published by Fourthwall Books, and each volume can be purchased separately from fourthwallbooks.com
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