by Ares Kalandides
Talking about public art in a city of such social tensions as Johannesburg is not straightforward. On the contrary I find that, permanent art, mostly in the form of sculptures often seems out of place, in the midst of such poverty and misery. My question irritates Stephen Hobbs, who together with his partner Markus Neustetter and their joint Venture “The Trinity Sessions” has been appointed chief curators for public art for a period of three years. “Why do we ask about the impact of art when it’s in public space, but take it for granted as soon as it’s in a museum?” As in many other cities around the world 1% of the construction budget for public buildings in Johannesburg is supposed to go to art. Sharon Lewis, who heads the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), explains:
“We expect public art to do the following: help define an identity for a neighbourhood; shift perceptions and increase confidence; create opportunities for us to engage with communities”. I cannot get rid of my gut feeling, that it is more complicated than that. Visits around the city show that public art is vandalized, and most often, its valuable materials are recycled, as is almost anything that is not permanently fixed to a structure. The raw material art is made of is much more valuable for people than art itself. Indeed it is impossible to talk about public space here without talking about insecurity. The post-Apartheid tensions between the different communities (something between 9 and 11), paired with excruciating poverty, make up an explosive mix from which engulfs everybody and everything. Even more so for the stranger, for whom it is always hard to read signs of behaviour in a different culture and estimate threat. “People don’t claim ownership of public space, because it’s historically been the space of the oppressor”, says Markus, the artist and curator. “These are often transient populations and though they’ve sometimes been here for over a decade, their feeling is, someday they’ll go back home – and that’s not in Joburg”.
“For me the most intense and best functioning public space are the taxis” (i.e. the minibuses), explains Thireshen Govender, architect and planner, who has his studio in the downtown neighbourhood of Maboneng. “They transport labour, from the periphery to the centre and vice-versa, here people meet and spend time together. There is more to then than just a means of transportation”. Thireshen has been working together with a developer who has bought over twenty buildings in the area and is now trying to upgrade it with the aid of artists, architects and other creative users. Here again, public art, mostly in the form of murals, is very present and defines the character of the neighbourhood. Both Thireshen’s urban works and The Trinity Sessions are located here, among several other spaces for the arts. For the European sensibility the area does not feel gentrified, though I am sure for many people in Joburg it most certainly is.
What I have found to be more interesting than the actual physical presence of permanent public sculptures is the process of creation of other forms of art. Working on the oral history by collecting stories, trying to find people with artistic skills in marginalized areas and encourage them to express themselves or working with children in schools to teach them dance – these are the projects that make all the difference and I will try to report more on them in the days to come.