Wednesday, 05 October 2011 09:52

The art of the inner city

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Inside the arty 12 Decades Hotel Inside the arty 12 Decades Hotel Picture by Kevin Friedman

Joburg is becoming known as an "art city". The artists who lived in Yeoville and Hillbrow never moved out of the inner city, even when it was in the midst of decay and despair.But with the resurgence of the city centre, the artists are flourishing and their work is everywhere, from public art to giant posters on buildings, exhibitions and spaces.

The city is getting a rep as a cultural hub, with a positive explosion of creativity, corporate involvement and passion for the arts, theatre, music and dance.

After consultation with a few artists-in-the know, I make a pilgrimage with fellow art lover Kevin Friedman to some of the exciting new art spaces which are blossoming in and around the city.

My first stop is the delightfully crazy Spaza Art Gallery in Troyeville, just up the road from the Troyeville Hotel. It has actually been going for ten years now, and is one of the more mature galleries around, but it is completely new to me, hence its inclusion!

Owner Andrew Lindsay, who is an artist himself, opens the door with a bemused look at having unexpected visitors, and shows us around, still looking bemused.

He is a gentle soul and has wonderful illustrated (Zapiro-style!) shopping bags with maps of Joburg and Soweto in his shop. You can't tell if the characters are praying or being hijacked for all their bling.

Everywhere there is glittering mosaic work, even in the parking area: Andrew did a lot of this for the inner city art projects, and he even made the bronze doors for the Constitution Court.

There is furniture in the gallery too, and one piece has the same bronzed doors. Andrew tells us that foodie Anna Trapido stopped by and bought a piece from him recently.

He meets his artists everywhere, from Bloemfontein to Bapsfontein, and gives them a platform in his gallery. There is a wonderful jumble of styles of work, from woodwork, to a shell painting to wooden birds to Andrew's own work, sepia-coloured faces on paper.

Everywhere there is some little detail to stop and absorb. Andrew seems to collect everything. Walking canes, pictures, Panama hats ...

The garden is Druidic, with spaces for the woodcarvers to work, giant wire chickens on the roof and a burgeoning herb and veggie garden. There is even an abandoned Vodacom tower in the garden which has a small painting of the crucifixion at its base. Andrew plans a little lunch for the carvers on Saturday, in the leafy courtyard where the birds twitter above.

The lunch menu, set in a huge mosaic frame, looks delicious and perfect for vegetarians. Sometimes the artists cook. I am definitely coming for a Sunday lunch, and some jazz. I love it all: it's real and "untrendy".

We are introduced to a pretty young artist who now lives in Cape Town, but grew up a few blocks away. She seems perfectly at home in the kitchen. I am getting hungry from all the talk of lunch, and Andrew recommends Abyssinia, an Ethiopian eatery down in Queen's Street.

But before we head off we are introduced to "evil John", a dreadlocked blond artist with paint-stained fingers, whose dreads make little horns on top of his head.

He doesn't seem evil at all, though he does tell us with relish about how "the richies" come out and paint graffitti on the walls in the area because it never gets painted over! 

There is some of the best graffiti work in this area by far, and Kevin did a walk with the "photowalkers" at the beginning of 2010.

Marie Claire magazine recently did a fashion shoot in the gallery and I can see why. It's just got such character. After my interview I tell Josef Talotta of South Point, and he muses that he really wants Andrew in Braamfontein, as he "likes his energy". Perhaps Andrew and his energy would not transplant, though?

Braamfontein, of course, has become the epicentre of the inner city, and every out-there publication is now carrying a story on it (two months after I wrote my article!).

70 Juta Street has seen the Stevenson/Brodie Gallery and The Co-op do very well over the past year, and Linda Goodman of the Goodman Gallery is coming out of retirement, to open up a gallery in the area. This will give inner city art "gravitas", says Glynis Hyslop of The Forum.

Sadly, this week Linda was not available for comment as she had broken her hip, but the nice thing about the internet is that you can always update when necessary!

The Wits Art Museum (WAM) is also based in Braamfontein, in Jorissen Street where the old Shell garage used to be, and is curated by Julia Charlton and Fiona Ramkin-Smith.

The Wits website reads: "One of the largest collections of African art is tragically hidden in carefully controlled storerooms at Wits University all because there is no museum. This collection of 9 000 works of art has been built up over seven decades and spans the African continent and centuries of our history. A new home for this collection, the Wits Art Museum, will be built as part of an exciting capital campaign".

The Johannesburg Art Gallery, popularly known as JAG, will be grateful for this addition to the inner city neighbourhood as, if an offsite exhibition takes place, the JAG needs a space with  a proper infrastructure, the correct lighting, air control, storage and security. All of which WAM will possess (Don't you love these acronyms? They are like Superman comics!).

We meet curator Antoinette Murdoch in her office, the inner sanctum of the JAG where few members of the public are invited.

The JAG, as it is known, is about to have a bit of a nip and tuck to celebrate its centenary in 2015, with the help of artist Stephen Hobbs, as the Meyer/Pienaar section which was built in 1986 has been suffering from a lot of water ingress and this is flooding the basement on this side and poses a threat to the artwork housed in this section.

It's ironic, because the original Luytens building is intact and perfectly watertight!  They built structures sturdily in those days!

Anyway, the focus is on restoring the gallery to its former glory by 2015. How heartening to hear that the Johannesburg Development Agency has its sights set on uplifting the surrounding area. Hillbrow was once the most cosmopolitan and exciting place in the inner city, but became one of the most distressed areas from the 1990s on.

The gallery has had the misfortune to try to survive in the midst of all this mayhem, but will now arise like a phoenix from the ashes. Hopefully with a lot more funding and better security (after the theft of three sculptures from the JAG storeroom).

The JAG is a really marvellous gallery and I am struck by the Mbongeni Buthelezi exhibition. One installation covers an entire wall, and is a tribute, formed of many smaller paintings making one whole and using melted plastic, to the artist's mother. The piece is much more vibrant than his usual, more muted colours.

Architect Brian McKechnie, who owns several flats in the Anstey Building, tells me about his Urban Arts Platform concept and how he is hosting Ansteys Art Events on a regular basis. The building is a gem of Art Deco architecture, and I can't wait to attend one of his art soirees there. What an atmosphere it will have.

Artist Alastair Machlachlan has a great space on top of the Lister Building, which is mostly a medical building, called Private Practice.

And, of course, there is a plethora of little galleries and spaces at Arts on Main. The 12 Decades Hotel is whimsically decorated in the style of the 12 decades of Joburg's short life, and there is a downstairs temporary gallery space.

The Standard Bank Gallery is another magnificent gallery where groundbreaking exhibitions have been held in the past. It might not be a new space but is worth a regular visit.

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