Travel and Leisure

16Apr

Arts and Culture in the Big Smoke

First appeared
EXPLORE SOUTH AFRICA magazine
Monday, 01 March 2010

Human beings need stereotypes. They help us to simplify things, to make sense of a world that would otherwise be far too complex. Unfortunately, of course, stereotypes usually derive from prejudiced assumptions; as South Africans, we are all too familiar with prejudice on the basis of race, gender, language and so on.

But there is another form of stereotyping that operates in our society, one that tends to remain unchallenged: regional (or geographical) prejudice. According to this logic, South Africans can be categorised according to the cities they inhabit. So there are, for instance, the laid-back but sophisticated coastal types, who enjoy the arts and fine living and outdoor leisure; and there are the sincere but dull inland types, who either live in pretty but boring rural areas or in urban environments that lack charm or redeeming natural features.

And then there are the people who choose to live in Johannesburg. “What could possibly possess them to do so?” their compatriots wonder. “The place has no history, no culture, no distinctive architectural style apart from Afro-Tuscan security complexes, no entertainment options apart from shopping malls and bars and restaurants. And the crime ...”

No doubt you’ve heard it all before. To be fair, these assertions are borne out by the experiences of many visitors to Joburg and, indeed, by many of those who live in SA’s biggest metropolis – folks who only know the daily grind of traffic, of corporate greed and industrial productivity, relieved by weekends at the Vaal or in the Magaliesberg (with vistas of mine dumps and factories en route). But it doesn’t have to be like that.

Let me tell you about my Johannesburg, and maybe next time you’re in town you’ll see that money’s not the only thing Jozi has to offer.

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We’ll start the tour way down south – south west to be precise – in ekasi lama kasi, the township that’s more than just a township: Soweto. No history? How about Vilakazi Street, where no fewer than two Nobel Peace Prize winners (Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu) have lived? Or the Hector Pieterson memorial, which pays tribute to the 1976 student uprising? The very names of Soweto’s “suburbs” are evocative in our country’s literary and cultural life: Orlando, Kliptown, Dobsonville, Jabavu, Pimville ...

Travel north from Soweto and, before too long, you’ll hit the world-renowned Apartheid Museum and, of course, Gold Reef City. Now, theme parks and casinos and historical recreations of mining towns may or may not be your thing, but it’s worth being reminded that Johannesburg owes its 120 or so years of existence to underground mineral wealth – a fact that Joburgers face with an odd mixture of irony, pride and indifference, but one that surfaces again and again in the city’s collective consciousness.

More importantly for “cultural tourists”, amidst the faux glitz and sham glam of Gold Reef City, the 1100-seat Lyric Theatre insists on the importance of arts and culture. This is a phenomenon echoed on the other side of the city, where the northern outpost of bad taste and hyperbolical artifice – Montecasino – is nonetheless a significant performing arts site courtesy of three well-attended theatre spaces (the Teatro, along with Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre and Studio).

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We still have plenty to see down south.

Despite a halting start, the best way to travel from Soweto into the city centre – the so-called “old” CBD – is going to be the new Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, a public transport network that will slowly be expanded to cover the rest of the city (and, it is hoped, will become a model for other cities across South Africa). For arts fundis, the most interesting feature of the BRT is not its reliability or its cost-effectiveness, but the artworks programme commissioned by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) to adorn each of the stations along the bus routes. This is one of many recent public art initiatives that have changed the aesthetic experience of downtown Jozi – from William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx’s “Fire Walker”, an 11m-high sculpture at the foot of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge, to statues of Walter and Albertina Sisulu between Commissioner and Market streets.

Another new sculptural addition is the statue of Kippie Moeketsi outside the original site of the Newtown jazz club that bears his name. Kippies is too funky to be dubbed a “venerable institution”, but it is tempting to use that clichéd phrase to describe some of Newtown’s other arts and culture venues. The Market Theatre may only have been around for three and a half decades but it is venerated across the globe as a theatrical Institution (in the best sense of that word) – such is the respect it gained, initially, as a site of protest theatre and, in post-apartheid South Africa, as a place where both seasoned and promising young thespians have plied their trade.

Newtown is also the home of the Dance Factory, where leading local contemporary dancers can be seen; Bassline, where on a given night you may find anything from a live music gig to an open mic poetry slam; various craft workshops and artists’ studios; Xarra Books, where a host of literati hang out; and Museum Africa, the imposing building that dominates Mary Fitzgerald Square and that, its chequered history notwithstanding, continues to host interesting exhibitions.

If Newtown marks the western limit of a Joburg culture vulture’s ambit, there’s still plenty of arts action as you head east across the city. The Standard Bank Gallery, unsurprisingly (given the bank’s sponsorship of the arts), hangs the work of some of our finest artists. The City Hall, another architectural gem largely unknown to most residents of the conurbation that is greater Joburg, regularly hosts classical music concerts. Further east, next to Joubert Park, is the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG); and further still, the eclectic collection of artists’ studios and exhibition spaces known as Arts on Main. If you keep winding along in that direction, sooner or later you’ll find yourself near Joburg’s own Chinatown – a cultural hub of a different sort.

Alternatively, head north from Newtown across the iconic Nelson Mandela Bridge and into the busy streets of Braamfontein. This is where the impressive Joburg Theatre Complex (formerly the Civic Theatre) is located – the grand auditorium of the Mandela Theatre, complemented by the more intimate Fringe and People’s theatres. Musicals, ballet, stand-up comedy and even pantomime are popular performance genres here.

A few blocks away, the Wits School of Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand offers not just a training ground for promising young theatre practitioners, musicians and visual artists, but also an array of performances and concerts for those from outside the university community. A new Wits Art Museum is soon to be constructed to house a substantial collection of contemporary and historical African art. The Wits Arts and Literature Experience (WALE) and the 969 Festival (a selection of productions from the National Arts Festival) are annual features on the Joburg arts calendar. The Linder Auditorium, on the university’s Education Campus, is probably the city’s best-known classical music venue and home to the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra.

Wits’ intellectual and educational rival, the University of Johannesburg, hosts an equally vibrant creative scene at its Arts Centre – including a gallery and theatre space that regularly exhibit professional work.

Acting as a buffer between the universities is the bohemian bustle of Melville, where a vibey nightlife is balanced by the suburb’s leafy calm during the day. Independent book and music stores, as well as antique and junk shops, are scattered liberally along its main streets.

Driving north on Jan Smuts Avenue, an arts strip of a very different kind can be found in Rosebank – the Everard Read Gallery, the Goodman Gallery and a number of smaller galleries are clustered here. If you’re not too fussy about distinctions between ‘art’ and ‘craft’, the Rosebank Mall also houses curio and craft markets. Also of interest in this line is the Craft and Design Centre Gauteng, a tranquil corner of the city located just off the thronging Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton. And, of course, if you’re in Sandton, there’s sure to be an entertaining show on at the Theatre on the Square.

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So: arts and culture in Joburg? We have it in bucket loads. Heck, if you choose your accommodation carefully, you can make art the last thing you see at night and the first thing you see in the morning. The Peech Hotel in upmarket Melrose, for instance, regularly holds fine art exhibitions; and downtown, in the Maboneng Precinct, Arts on Main developer Jonathan Liebmann’s latest project is Main Street Life, where boutique hotel rooms will sit side by side with artists’ studios and display spaces.

Of Johannesburg’s many industries, the arts industry is one of the fastest-growing: from the Joburg Art Fair in March to the Arts Alive Festival in September (which, in 2009, was followed by the World Arts Summit), and any month in between, art is all around. You just have to know where to look for it.

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