14 June 2012 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

When the streets talk

The streets of Jozi are known for many things, but what struck me most on a recent inner-city excursion was the raw creativity at work around every corner…

Jo Buitendach from Past Experiences

Downtown Jozi was buzzing recently when I took a ‘whistle-stop’ tour of some of its most prominent public art. Guided by the amazing Jo Buitendach from Past Experiences (I filled a whole notebook!), we covered some of the city's better-known public art installations – the ones that are too far apart to cover in an art-precinct walking tour, and a few that skirt the city limits.

Outside the Lamunu Hotel, where the tour starts Outside the Lamunu Hotel, where the tour starts

Over a period of about 3 hours, we moved from a spot just outside the impressively chic Lamunu Hotel, through Braamfontein (planted with its wonderful metal trees), Hillbrow (where we were welcomed by Winston Luthuli’s Angel of the North) and beyond, to Vrededorp and Fordsburg, on the western edge of the city, were the art is inspired by memories of Fietas and a rich cultural legacy that links the past to the present.

Jo’burg is literally transforming into a giant art gallery, with the more formal art projects inspiring (and being inspired by) spontaneous street art.

As Jo explained, Jo'burg’s brilliant public art policy means that a percentage of all business development budgets in downtown Jozi are put towards public art projects. This means there are new works being created all the time.

Jo’burg is literally transforming into a giant art gallery, with the more formal art projects inspiring (and being inspired by) spontaneous street art that speaks of city life, enormous talent and a belief that art means something or says something that’s worth listening to.

So what did I hear?

In the Governor’s House Trees by Americo Guambe, Ngwedi Design and The Trinity Session (2010), I heard stories of vision, diversity, history, roots and growth. Located opposite Constitution Hill, a young girl gazes towards Hillbrow, on the shoulders of the different nationalities that animate this part of the city. A boy, who is pointing in the other direction, towards the city, stands atop its iconic buildings, in welcome. The medium is, of course, part of the message and ‘giving’ these trees to art makes a powerful statement, which Guambe has added to and refined through his choice of subject.

Firewalker by William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx (2009) spoke to me of women and warmth and nourishment; of the constant movement of the city; of people far from home and of new homes, new hearths; and of city life and human need. It is located just past the Queen Elizabeth Bridge, at Simmonds and Sauer streets, and its shadows and disjointedness give it movement and echo the silhouettes of the women who, even today, walk the streets of Jozi with braziers on their heads, selling mielies, coals or other traditional foods.

Paper Pigeons by Gerhard and Maja Marx (2009) spoke to me of homecoming, understanding, peace and communication. Messengers in a literal and symbolic sense, these pigeons bring 2 worlds together at the intersection of Commissioner and Margaret Mcingana streets in Ferreirasdorp. Made from steel, the pigeons are origami-styled as a tribute to the oriental and Chinese community in this part of the city. I also love that the sculptures have metal rods so the birds can roost on them; there is humour, humility and gentleness in this.

These are just 3 of the dozens of works of art I saw in the inner city, and I could say something about every single 1 of them, because each 1 said something to me (I haven’t even mentioned the informal graffiti, art, fashion and architecture...).

I finished the tour with a tangible feeling of excitement and a new pride in Jo’burg. All the elements – Jo’s knowledge and enthusiasm, the tour group's appreciation of the inner cityscape and the fact that there is so much happening – combined to bring Johannesburg wonderfully to life for me. It made old streets new, opened up fresh narratives and debates, and hinted at the world of possibilities that Jozi, in all its many facets, embodies. 

I heard and saw the buzzing, walking, eating, talking, loving, trading heart of the city reflected in its art. Thanks, Jo, for helping to open my eyes. I’ll be back for more.

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