CREATIVE HUBS: JOHANNESBURG
There is something a little hollow in billing a city with a cultural legacy like Johannesburg’s as an emerging creative hub; any 1,500-word run-through of what creativity means to the South African city destined to be an inadequate portrayal of its 130-year history. But endeavour I will, for visitors are flocking to Jo’burg (4.4 million last year) on the back of its rife unconventionality; buoyant scenes of art, music, fashion, food and drink, and a staunch nonconformist stance.
Founded 50 years ago, during the era of apartheid (the same year the oppressive movement’s architect Hendrik Verwoerd was assassinated, yet long before it would be abolished), Goodman Gallery is one of the country’s longest-serving contemporary art galleries. A determined activist, its founder Linda Givon would ensure art that pushed for social and political change, art that was rooted in the protest movement confronting the unjust governance of South Africa, would be at the core of the gallery’s ethos. Revolutionary from the off, Goodman Gallery’s long-standing commitment to African art and black artists acts as a kind of metaphor for the creative renaissance of Johannesburg today.
Cultural legacy. A provocative hotbed of contemporary art for a long period of its relatively short life. Yet the weight of apartheid has hung heavy over Johannesburg; an uneasy transition followed the official end of racial segregation in 1994, and the city’s downtown area descended into a breeding ground for violence and social degeneration. In many ways, the Jozi of today feels like a new city — a city with a respect for its roots, but a determination to shrug off its recent agonies. A city excited only by the future.
Founded just 80 years before its first contemporary art gallery, Johannesburg was named in 1886 by the Dutch settlers who’d struck gold there — a gold rush city, it was a mere ten years before being established as a city of over 100,000 inhabitants. Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned here, as was Mandela, the latter spending much of his turbulent and triumphant life here. Desmond Tutu, another inspirational social rights activist, moved to the city at the age of 12 — he too riding the tempestuousness of the City of Gold’s short history. Like I said it’s easy for anything written about Johannesburg to err on the side of inadequacy; buckling under the enormity of its own singular story.
The march of time goes on, though, and 22 years after apartheid was brought down, the city is finally finding its feet as a concern for the contemporary traveller. The urban decline that Jozi felt in the decades that followed is in turnaround — like Berlin and New York before it, vast city centre spaces now found themselves free to be occupied by creative thinkers, its gritty urban landscape a blank canvas for cultural trailblazers; an Instagram-friendly backdrop for the digital nomad.
Of course, momentous history is difficult to shake off. Doing the obligatory hip-hostel thing, Curiocity Backpackers is a youthful, live-like-a-local affair, sporting a stylish industrial aesthetic and common areas dedicated to events and interaction with the local creative communities, but it is also the former premises of Pacific Press, whose owners — at their own risk — printed publications for the anti-apartheid white women’s resistance organisation The Black Sash Movement, and the ANC’s anti-apartheid publication, Fighting Talk; it’s also rumoured that Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu sought refuge here. How many Millennial-minded stopovers can boast that sort of heritage?
The hostel is set within thriving creative hub, the Maboneng Precinct, a nucleus of repurposed industrial spaces that began when property developer Jonathan Liebmann opened up his Arts on Main complex in 2009. Deemed a no-go-zone at the time, the gamble has paid off and then some; in a role reversal of Brooklyn or East London, Liebmann’s job was to restore faith in the inner-city neighbourhoods — locals having fled for the suburbs in a bid to avoid the uncontrollable crime that followed the fall of apartheid.
Arts on Main is an impressive urban space, home to creative studios, art-led retailers, concept stores, and the Canteen café that sits under beautiful African olive trees. The 12 Decades Art Hotel watches over proceedings, each of its artist-designed rooms chronicling a period of the city’s rollercoaster past; whilst an artist exchange programme sees international creatives offered free accommodation in exchange for leaving behind a site-specific piece of work. Staying in Maboneng, acclaimed Tanzanian-born British architect David Adjaye is working on transforming a 66 metre-high building (built in the 1970s to house the growing diamond polishing industry) into luxury apartments and another hotel.
Plenty of places to stay. Plenty of things to do. Market On Main is a weekly celebration of regional food and drink, and local design; Origin Artisan Coffee Roasters and craft beer bar SMACK! Republic tick two essential boxes for the roaming creative class; then there are cocktail bars; an independent cinema; a raft of local fashion designers and makers; and the Museum of African Design (MOAD). MOAD bills itself as the ‘continent’s first design laboratory’ — a cultural hub rather than collecting gallery, a think-tank of ideas that will shape Africa’s future, and a perfect example of the rawness in creativity that Johannesburg’s rebirth has brought about. Considered a place where anyone could come and make something of themselves since its god rush genesis, the entrepreneurial spirit, that feeling of anything being attainable, is alive and kicking.
Maboneng is not Jo’burg’s only creative kernel, mind. Braamfontein is its rowdy, unpasteurised sibling — typified by the Great Dane, an unruly drinking den that runs until 4am most of the week; its expressive, ramshackle interiors as fascinating as the dancing hoards who’ve come to let go. The Neighbourgoods Market does for Braamfontein what Market On Main does for Masoning — and, amongst the heady nightlife, there are plenty of art galleries (like the cutting-edge Kalashnikovv Gallery), thought-provoking retailers, and restaurants here in ‘Braam’; third wave coffee shop Father, meanwhile, brings an air of Scandinavian cool to the sonorous vibrancy of the neighbourhood.
Naturally, Braamfontein also has its own independent accommodation: The Bannister Hotel is unashamedly no-frills, but it is in the heart of the district, and has the experience-hungry traveller in mind. Local bars like the aforementioned Great Dane, and Kitchener’s (a cool-kid hangout in a former grand colonial hotel), are just steps away; as are nearby attractions like Wits Art Museum, Constitution Hill and Nelson Mandela bridge.
Two prospering creative neighbourhoods do not make a city, though, and Johannesburg is some city — its greater metropolitan area is over four times that of London’s; a sprawling L.A.-like expanse. 44 Stanley is another creative regeneration project, revived industrial units and courtyards welcoming cafés, galleries, boutiques, and design studios; Stanley’s Beer Yard keeps the pulse of the project beating, with live performances and plenty of artisan beer on tap.
Bar-restaurants Craft and The Wolfpack lend a little of that Brooklyn-minded burger and beer thing to suburb Parkhurst, whilst Katy’s Palace Bar is an imposing heritage venue with incredible views out in Kramerville. Then there’s the famous township of Soweto, and it’s even more famous Orlando Towers; dilapidated Newtown being revived by abundant street art and the enterprising locals at design and fashion retail concept Work Shop Newtown; converted power station plant 1 Fox Precinct, home to arts and craft, restaurants, and the brilliant Mad Giant Craft Brewery; and bohemian suburb Melville, home to tons of bars like Hell’s Kitchen, an American themed den of iniquity that riffs on Prohibition-era speakeasies.
There’s little able to epitomise the city’s once-forgotten CBD like Ponte City, the Modernist residential skyscraper that fell into chaos during the 1980s; a symbol for the city’s urban decay, long mythologised thanks to its dystopian aesthetic — the image of gangs, prostitutes, and dealers running rife in a 55-storey cylindrical concrete building the stuff of post-apocalyptic fiction. Captured by artists Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse over six years, their 192-page book of the same name (published by Steidl) tells a moving tale of resilience, a complex portrait of a building that is inescapable here. In the long road to redemption (a major redevelopment project was hit by the subprime mortgage crisis), Ponte City still stands tall and proud, regardless of what has rocked it.
And the same can be said for the city as a whole — Johannesburg’s revival isn’t out of the woods, not by a long shot, but it is its resilience and spirit that define it today. Regeneration projects and entrepreneurial fortitude are shaping a new Jo’burg that doesn’t want to look back; many of its burgeoning young creatives were born in post-apartheid South Africa, and feel little or no connection to its turbulent past. So: hollow to bill a city with a cultural legacy like this as an emerging creative hub? Maybe. But only if you want to look over your shoulder at times that cannot be changed. Johannesburg in 2016 is a city carving out its own legacy. Emergent it is.