INNER LIVES IN THE INNER CITY
Who knew that, amid the bustle and chaos of central Joburg, communities of artist are quietly changing the way South Africans think about the inner city? OpenStudios.joburg gives you a chance to see them at work and find out why they chose this seemingly
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If you follow the huge grey swirl of pigeons as they circle Fordsburg you’re bound to end up on Lilian Road. The birds settle at this western edge of the inner city for the mercy of an evening meal. The humans come for a hidden treat of the creative kind if they know where to look. Lilian Road Studios is on the top level of a faded 1913 Victorian-style double-storey gem attributed to John Francis Beardwood, a pioneering architect of early Joburg. Inside, the once modest residential top-floor units have, since the early 2000s, been art studios, including the working space of Hermann Niebuhr. Neibuhr is now an ex-Joburger, having relocated to De Rust in the Western Cape. His exit opened the space for a new tenant — artist and art lecturer Gordon Froud. Froud calls this his “outhouse” for printmaking and an overflow from his Nugget Hill studio. He also shares the Lilian Road Studios with his students and fellow artists to work and create or to access his “how to” library of creative art-making books. Froud says: “When I got the call that Lilian Road Studios needed an anchor tenant or the studios would probably end up being rented out as a family room, I had to say yes, because this building has been an art space for so long and it should be preserved as such.” Fordsburg is rich in early Joburg history when it was in gold rush thrill. Today it’s a buzzing neighbourhood dominated by Indian and Pakistani communities, light industry and businesses. Fordsburg, though, is not a place that comes to mind as a contemporary art destination in Joburg. It’s this idea of chance discovery, of stumbling on an unseen treasure in your backyard that sparked the OpenStudios.joburg concept. THE ALCHEMY THAT LEADS TO CREATIVITY OpenStudios.joburg came into being rooted in shifting the perception of what art is, where art belongs and who art is for. The annual weekend-long event sees participating studios open their doors to a curious public. The idea is to invite visitors to explore more of the inner city and to engage Joburg’s diverse art communities in their working spaces, not just through the Instagram-perfect curation of galleries and exhibition halls. Studio visits give people a glimpse of how space and place affect the art-making process. There’s recognition of the tension between effort and play in creation and a sense of how time bends differently when creative processes observe their own clocks. There’s a hint too of the alchemy of how creatives’ lives are inevitably the magic of solitary endeavour twinned with community energy. This year is the second iteration of OpenStudios.joburg that in 2022 attracted more than 2,000 visitors. The ticketed event takes place on May 27 and 28 with 11 art spaces and 155 artists participating. Each day focuses on a different part of the city. OpenStudios.joburg has collaborated with the RMB Latitudes Fair that takes place at Shepstone Gardens over the same weekend. There will be a hop-on, hop-off shuttle looping between the art spaces, studios and the fair that span a 6km radius. Visit www.openstudios.joburg. The artists on the Saturday will include Froud, Alastair Findlay, Xia Cweba, who is part of The Printing Girls collective, Ada-Ruth Kellow and Mai Al Shazly, a Cairo-based visual artist in residence at the University of Johannesburg. They represent the Lilian Road Studios community. Alongside them are Bridge Books, Rand Club, the Bag Factory, the Creative Uprising Hub @Transwerke and Play Braamfontein. On Sunday it will be the turn of the communities of August House, Ellis House, Living Artists Emporium and Victoria Yards and Asisebenze Art Atelier (AAA). AT WORK IN A COSMOPOLITAN MELTING POT AAA is another new addition to this year’s studio line-up. The building on Plein Street is a stunner — another Jozi surprise. The gallery floor spills onto a glorious wraparound balcony that on weekdays, especially, thrums with the city’s hooting taxis and the shrill joy of kids’ football matches from across the road at Attwell Garden Parks and outdoor recreation area. AAA opened in 2021 as a studio space, an art dealership and a gallery. Its identity is undeniably urban and every bit about the cosmopolitan melting pot of a Joburg addicted to reinvention. AAA is home to artists such as Mummy Khumalo, Themba Shabalala, Patrick Seruwu and Mbali Tshabalala. Inside Tshabalala’s expansive studio at AAA the load-shedding hours are brightened by shafts of sunlight through her windows. The studio soundtrack is the rush-hour flurry. Up against the corner she’s made room for her toddler daughter’s mini studio of plastic table, chairs and toys. It’s in this space that Tshabalala has been able to turn over the things in her mind and her heart, she says. She’s paused at making peace with mental health and the limits of religion and well-meaning but stale family platitudes; of motherhood and raising a child in an uncertain world; and making sense of a world so recently ravaged by Covid-19. “I’ve been able to empty my mind into my hands and my subconscious and just let things flow,” she says, talking through what’s reflected on her canvases. Also in the studio is a personal gallery. “We artists tend to sell everything we make, so we own nothing of our own works and then we have nothing to show for what we’ve done. So over the years I’ve made a point to keep something of every series I’ve created; it’s a way to claim back some of my own power,” she says. A QUIET CBD REVOLUTION OpenStudios.joburg is the brainchild of Sara Hallatt, who is director and co-founder of the Meta Foundation. Meta was started as an NPO to help artists explore different avenues for collaboration and workshopping and to build projects and initiatives for creators to connect with buyers and markets. It also works to bring them greater exposure and to nurture an art-loving public. Meta is based in August House, the innercity art hub that’s home to 40 pan-African artists. For Hallatt, there is a “quiet revolution in the CBD ”—a new stirring, rising from the ignored inner city. “This revolution is not about the government swooping in to fix things; it’s about South Africans reclaiming their streets and reclaiming their access to culture, which the CBD has in abundance. “OpenStudios.joburg is a tiny way to shine a light on what it means to support culture, to create beauty, and what it means to be alive in this city. I know the city can feel dark and scary, but then you come into these studios and you experience unbelievable magic. And it’s something that these artists have been doing here all day long, every day and, in some cases, for decades already,” she says. Hallatt’s initiative is an open invitation to go behind closed doors, to pause at the forgotten spaces in a tough city and to open your mind long enough to see that art, culture and community are how a city such as Joburg rises and resists being written off.