An adventurer, storyteller and writer with an insatiable curiosity for the fresh, the bizarre, the brilliant. Exploring life in North East England and elsewhere.

Murals of a Distant Land: The Street Art of Johannesburg

Murals of a Distant Land: The Street Art of Johannesburg

In the southern tip of Africa, in the concrete jungle of entangling cultures, politics and corrupt gold, in a time not that long ago, Cat found a home close to what was once called the intellectual epicentre of artists and musicians. Sophiatown. The town that wouldn’t die. A spirit of liberalism and revolution once walked its streets in the form of jazz musicians, painters, political activists and writers. There, the groove of township life was born out of hardship, injustice and a pulsing desire to live. It combined the lawful and the unlawful, the right and the wrong, the harmless and the deadly. It was crushed by those in power; its original residents scattered in other parts of the city.

It was reborn everywhere else. Where its spirit lived on.

As of yet I haven’t written much about the city where I grew up in. Johannesburg, South Africa’s business hub, does not qualify as a place of interest for most tourists visiting the country. It is a transit point. A place to be passed by. It does not have Table Mountain, nor the sapphire sea and upper-class swag and luxury of Cape Town, it does not have vineyards, nor is it common to encounter the Big Five on the streets. What Johannesburg has, however, is life. Artistic life. Cultural life. Intellectual life. Innovative life. In a brutal sense: naked and torn from the earth.

A type of life that was characteristic of Sophiatown in the 1940s and 1950s when it was home to an active (mainly black) intellectual and artistic community before it was demolished by the government.

I used to live not far from Sophiatown, the student-ville of Westdene and the bohemian centre of Melville — generally considered a cluster of poorer suburbs situated close to the town centre. There is a grittiness to the city that cannot be overlooked especially in theses non-commercial and less well-to-do areas. But for every layer of grit, for every layer of poverty and of discontentment with the governing system, there is a layer of vibrancy, creativity and innovation. It is usually the grittiest of areas that have the most raw artistic life in them and the most potential to be different.

Amidst the continually growing and diversifying attractions of Johannesburg and as part of this raw artistic life form, there is a dynamic street art scene. With ambitions to become the biggest urban art city in the world, Johannesburg municipalities and the city’s development agency have largely tolerated public art and steadily encouraged street artists to use the city as their canvas (at least up until recently — there is talk of changing bylaws to remove and regulate it more strictly). It has become a defining characteristic of Johannesburg and can be found in and around the town centre, in places such as Newtown, Jeppestown and more recently Westdene.

One of the most realistic murals in Westdene

One of the most realistic murals in Westdene

Despite living so close to a thriving urban art scene, I never took the time to notice these aesthetic spaces of human expression. Spaces that cannot be contained within a single frame nor shut away within an upmarket gallery catering for a select class of clientele.

When I visited South Africa last year, I drove through Sophiatown and Westdene — suburbs I knew but didn’t know at all — to discover things that were always there (perhaps in another form, in another place, in another time). To discover a small portion of that spirit I’ve often read about, and always felt in certain sections of the city. The spirit of Sophiatown.

These are photographs I took of some of the murals which form part of a graffiti initiative in Westdene.  Residents offered up their walls to graffiti artists with the aim of beautifying the grit of a suburb normally associated with poor student housing and crime. This forms only a tiny part of a larger framework of street art scattered across Johannesburg.

A literal layer of vibrancy: BenJay Crossman’s Tekno Bonobo mural on the corner of 2nd Avenue and Monmouth Road

A literal layer of vibrancy: BenJay Crossman’s Tekno Bonobo mural on the corner of 2nd Avenue and Monmouth Road

Shop owners also give graffiti artists permission to decorate their shop walls, like this dog grooming parlour on 26 Thornton Road

Shop owners also give graffiti artists permission to decorate their shop walls, like this dog grooming parlour on 26 Thornton Road

70 3rd Avenue

70 3rd Avenue

65 4th Avenue

65 4th Avenue

An example of cultural and political commentary in street art

An example of cultural and political commentary in street art


Urban Art in the North East?

My exploration of Westdene and my passion for urban art have left me with a burning question: "Does a similar type of artistic expression exist in the North East?" In a next article I intend to explore the particular manifestation of this art form on the Northern side of the world.

If you ever visit South Africa, don't miss out on the Johannesburg graffiti and street art tours offered by Gummie (they also offer a whole range of other tours that allow visitors to see a different side of the city).

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