Artist Hermann Niebuhr’s Johannesburg is many cities. All of them familiar, but each distinctive in its difference.
At his Fordsburg studio, the more than 30 versions hang in one room, a dizzying display of colour and light. There are cityscapes, and the traces of cityscapes, geometric lines that compose Johannesburg’s most famous landmarks and that, on closer inspection, fracture and break apart. In each the sky and city are entangled, the light washing over the buildings warming the city or darkening it, making it appear in turns welcoming, and then coldly foreboding, making it appear real.
For Johannesburg is in some ways an unknowable city, a city of concealment, and of surprises, where hipsters rub shoulders with church prophets and you can find a sheep’s head as easily as you can a pair of Italian brogues. Surfaces are only to be taken for the whole at your own peril. Continue reading →
Taking a walk in Joburg’s inner-city city may just surprise you for all the right reasons… [The brilliant photos are by Wesley Poon]
Ask anyone who lives here to describe the city of Joburg and they rarely extol its beauty. Mostly they point out it’s a city without a sea and until the Nelson Mandela Bridge it was a city without any remarkable landmarks that aren’t communication towers or apartment blocks. And those are the polite remarks.
Over the past five years, it’s a little known fact that the city has installed an impressive and growing number of public artworks – at last count at more than 50 sites. In 2006 a strategy was put in place to use public art as a way of fulfilling a range of Joburg’s developing needs. It called for a public art levy, a common global practice, that would devote up to one percent of the construction budget on major city building projects to this end. This was implemented by the Johannesburg Development Agency at a time when the city has been undergoing something of a boom, and it will continue.
The unofficial public art in the city - District 9
Take that walk. The oddest part of walking through Hillbrow with the Heritage Trust about a year ago must have been the huge police presence that accompanied us (I admit I felt reassured when we rounded a corner near the Fire Station and were confronted by a terrified-looking man surrounded by a small group of large men who seemed to be holding onto his hands a little too tightly.) At other times it was just oddly amusing though – as we walked to wards Louis Botha Avenue a spaza shop owner popped his head out of the kiosk and said “W-e-l-c-o-m-e t-o S-o-u-t-h A-f-r-i-c-a! W-h-e-r-e a-r-e y-o-u f-r-o-m?” Continue reading →
Enjoy the idea of Joburg Fashion Week glossing up the inner city. It’s something SA Fashion Week and the Fairlady Awards did for years but to a much smaller audience. I’ve seen catwalk shows at Turbine Hall, pre-renovation, at Hillbrow’s Windybrow Theatre and even at the deconsecrated Wolmarans Street Synagogue. This time the venues are a little more luxe and include the Rand Club, the Bus Factory (OK, not that luxe) and what sounds like a spectacular finale across the Nelson Mandela Bridge with David Tlale showing 92 outfits, each marking one year of Madiba’s life. I have also heard that the best part of that show will be that everyone gets a front-row seat – and you don’t have to trip a fashion editor for it. Continue reading →
194#. Read the New York Times on Braamfontein. The paper of record has called it. Braamfontein is Joburg’s version of New York’s Soho. It has urban edge, lots of design and artistic talent, and a property developer with a real eye for the city’s future. Personally I have always been fond of that neighbourhood, from student days in the early 1990s when I would spend most of my cash (and there wasn’t much of it) at the bookshop on the corner where the Braamfontein Centre now stands (looking back it was literature of the revolution – lots of Fanon, Cabral, Biko. Okay admittedly those were books that real revolutionaries would steal so this is a revealing moment) to cheap and tasty lunches at the Health Scene and a great little Italian joint whose name I don’t recall but whose veal limone I do. Continue reading →
#171. Admire the angel and say that if any place needs one it’s Hillbrow.
Perched up high between Constitution Hill and one of Joburg’s most talked about suburbs the angel is one of a number of public artworks that have sprung up around the inner city. Part of the city of Johannesburg’s public art policy, officials have been hard at work commissioning artists to create pieces that are redefining the city as an inclusive space.
As for Hillbrow, it’s a place that conjures nostalgic, that calls up myths and legends. From the post-1994 hard drug scene that sprang up around the Sands Hotel to the playground of SA’s original party girl Brenda Fassie, Hillbrow was also home to my grandmother and a great-aunt (a lot earlier than that) who lived in the Coronia residential hotel in the late 1970’s (Now it’s a disco, but not for Lola …). Tropicana or was it Tropica sold the best schwarmas in town (It was the wrap) while Estoril had the monopoly on Italian fashion magazines. At Café Paris the men smoked and played backgammon and in the late 80’s Fontana would sell you roast chicken no matter the hour. Hillbrow was the height of cool. All bright lights and big-city like. Continue reading →
#166. Recommend that if you love reading and food, or recipes, or have any interest in Chinese culture, and/or Taiwan (or all of these) then you should pick up a copy of Emperor Can Wait by Joburg restaurateur Emma Chen. For the uninitiated the title refers to a chinese proverb “The Emperor can wait –while we eat”. First a disclosure – I worked [as an editor] with Chen on the initial manuscript. Now that’s out of the way … the book launched a few days ago with a wedding feast at the Red Chamber, Chen’s restaurant in Hyde Park that is celebrating 20 years of existence (In Joburg restaurant parlance, a lifetime).
That’s 20 years of the best cucumber salad in Johannesburg, possibly the world. There are people who would kill for that recipe and in this city it’s possible they already have.
#142. Confirm that real life can be far more interesting than fiction in this city. Last week I interviewed Peter Harris, author of In A Different Time, at one of my favourite bookstores Boekehuis in Melville. Harris’s true account of the dramatic tale of the Delmas Four with its intrigue and suspense and myriad coincidences is a plot fiction writers dream of creating, remarked someone in the audience.
Big news this morning is the arrest of a prominent attorney for assisting a crime syndicate to hijack inner-city buildings. This after watching “Jerusalema” last week, a movie set in Johannesburg that I had long been wanting to see. Continue reading →
#88. Note the apostrophes. A few weeks ago the Birmingham City Council, in a fit of grammatical pique, banned apostrophes. A report in the Birmingham Post by Paul Dale said that “They’ve been a source of utter confusion to schoolchildren over the years. And it’s a brave adult who can be absolutely certain where to put the little beast.” Continue reading →
#65. Get The Joburg Book – a guide to this city of “thieves and dreamers”. The Joburg Book, edited by Nechama Brodie of The Hunter Gatherer fame is more than a history book and more than a guide. Just released it’s a collection of writings about how this city came about ( a giant meteorite figures in the story), the nature of its contemporary life, its people and its food (it even contains a Biryani recipe for feeding 800 people) and its constant need for its own reinvention. And through it all runs a seam of gold that has shaped this place into what it is today — a magnet for fortune-seekers and adventurers, at times a refuge and at others a city under seige.
It’s still the same city that Herman Charles Bosman wrote about, saying: “They are trying to make Johannesburg respectable. They are trying to make snobs out of us, making us forget who our ancestors were. They are trying to make us lose our sense of pride in the fact that our forebears were a lot of roughnecks who knew nothing about culture and who came here to look for gold”.