Thursday, November 4, 2010

What happens when the 'pioneers' set up artistic enclaves?

Within the next couple of days Joburg’s trendy art clique will be descending on Braamfontein, which is fast becoming the city’s new cultural centre. Brodie/Stevenson will open their doors tonight with a Pieter Hugo exhibition and on the weekend a cluster of new ‘curated’ designer shops will also start trading.  This is not a replica of the Arts on Main development but it is competition.  Adam Levy, the young property developer who has been driving this new hub, has tried to distinguish this development from Arts on Main by proposing that it is all geared towards fostering interaction with the environment. Nevertheless, as you will note in my feature on the suburb below, which I wrote for the Sunday Indy about a month ago, Levy has gone to quite extraordinary lengths to ensure his artistic enclave is populated by the selfsame people you would find at 44 Stanley or Parkhurst. He is openly resentful of the existing population in the suburb who are predominantly students – as he believes this will detract from the suburb’s upward mobility. Of course, I am excited about the emergence of this new artistic centre and appreciate the sentiment that is driving it but I think that in the arts community we really need to understand the ideas that frame these kinds of developments and be honest about their exclusionary nature.  I find it troubling that the predominantly white people who settle in Joburg’s supposedly urban wilderness are cast as pioneers, particularly when they try to conjure the suburban worlds that they have supposedly eschewed. Thus this move into the city is not really about embracing what the city is but transforming it into what is thought to be more desirable. This is not necessarily a negative compulsion; this is how cities are regenerated. My concern is that we are never honest about our motives. Here is what I wrote:

HOW YOU perceive the world often depends on the vantage point you are viewing it from. From Randlords, a new rooftop bar in Braamfontein, I can’t perceive the everyday details on the ground. My gaze is concentrated on Joburg’s inner-city skyline, across from the Mandela Bridge. Sometimes it can be liberating not to be immersed in the details. It frees you up to absorb the bigger picture. Randlords is only 22 storeys up so it is not quite in the clouds but Joburg’s inner city appears like any in the world. It looks functional, pristine and desirable. It might not be all these things yet but from the rooftop of Randlords I can’t help believing that this could all be possible.

Of course, it’s easy to conceive of the rich possibilities that this city offers when you are ensconced in a sophisticated bar that is reached via its own private lift, has a rooftop lounge with glass balustrades, designer toilets and Afrochic tables embellished with beads from around the continent. But the fact that this is the most-talked-about bar in town – with everyone claiming to have visited it and having paid the R250 entrance fee for the pleasure – is surely a sign that middle-class suburbanites are reconsidering their relationship to the city, or at least to Braamfontein.

Braamfontein is the ideal place for suburbanites to test the waters of city life. It is a transitional area. The railway tracks that separate this compact suburb from the inner city creates a physical distance. Its proximity to suburbia and the  profusion of trees and birds imparts a semi-suburban feel. Perhaps this is why this modest urban area is catching the attention of Joburg’s well-heeled – they can enjoy the cool, edgy cachet that is attached to the city without all the drawbacks associated with the inner city’s “deep” interior.
The moneyed classes did show a bit of interest in the city around the time that Urban Ocean tried to tempt them with R4 million penthouse suites with helicopter pads and doormen on hand to help them unload their shopping bags. Those who could afford to buy into the fantasy lifestyle were labelled “pioneers”.  But years later many say there was little substance to the dream that Urban Ocean was selling: the buildings have been said to be full of empty shells.

Perhaps it wasn’t that people didn’t buy into the brand of opulent high living they were flogging, but that they didn’t buy into the rest of the city. If you needed a helicopter to avoid an encounter with the environment, was there any point in living in the city? After all, as seductive as the views from rooftops are, at some point you would be compelled to explore life on the ground.

And Braamfontein isn’t too shabby at level zero. The streets are infinitely tidier than those in the inner city and are thus perceived to be much safer – it all comes down to appearances. Braamfontein also went through a slump during the late 80s and early 90s, mirroring the deterioration that took hold in the CBD, but many say this suburb never sank to the same depths of decrepitude.  Consequently, it has taken a lot less investment to reinvigorate it. Aside from a number of public art projects, such as the Juta Street Trees Project and Clive van den Berg’s imposing Eland sculpture, largely the city concentrated its efforts on structural upgrading – improving pavements and street lights.

Some locals complain that five years later the city has failed to maintain these improvements and the corners that were cut during their installation are starting to show. Nevertheless most seem to agree that Braamfontein is a much more habitable area. Katy Taplin, the “missus” from the Dokter and Missus furniture brand known for cutting-edge products with a distinct De Stijl sensibility, often strolls around the suburb. In fact she and her business partner, Adriaan Hugo, were so enamoured with the area that they teamed up
with the owners of Whatiftheworld Gallery in Cape Town to open their own gallery-cum-showroom in Juta Street. Called Co Op, the gallery attracts a young, trendy design art clique capable of lending the cool factor to any up-and-coming suburb.

I find Taplin in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. She is hard at work in her studio at the back of the gallery.
“We wanted a place that was not totally industrial and not purely retail that we could do both,” she observes. This kind of business model has become attractive to young creatives who want to keep overheads down and be able to offer personalised service, says Taplin.

Since Co Op opened its doors last year, Afronova, an art gallery that deals in contemporary art from the continent, has opened and the Brodie/Stevenson gallery is due to celebrate its new premises with a Pieter Hugo exhibition in October. But that is just the beginning; next door to Co Op, at a development called 70 Juta Street, an advertising agency and architect are operating. And, at the beginning of next month, a group of creatives hailing from the fashion and décor industry will be occupying the colourful, street-fronted shops that open onto Juta and De Beer streets. One shop is to be called Aware; it is dubbed a “curated space”, meaning that the visual and/or conceptual relationship between the fashion, décor and music-related objects for sale will inform the display. In other words, these functional and decorative objects will get the art treatment.

The minimalist furniture pieces that Taplin displays at Co Op are also presented as prized art objects. This presentation approach has been galvanised by a desire to celebrate the uniqueness of these homegrown designer products. This new creative retail hub is also driven by a sort of anti-mall philosophy.
“You aren’t going to find Levis or Guess jeans for sale here,” observes Taplin.
It is no accident that these kinds of new proudly South African retail experiences are clustered together. Adam Levy, the owner of all these properties and others on De Beer Street where designers such as Lisa Jaffe has a studio, has made a concerted effort to attract these kinds of tenants to the little patch of  Braamfontein that he has been cultivating for the past seven years. It’s all part of his grand scheme to establish Joburg as “a world-class city” – he thinks the “African” designation which usually is attached to this phrase is self-defeating.

Like most of the folk committed to regenerating the city Levy’s commercial aspirations are framed by a wider social interest.
“Making money is purely incidental to me; it is the making of culture that I am interested in,” he says. For this reason he was prepared for his buildings to sit unoccupied until he had identified the “right” tenants.
“This is about establishing a sense of aspiration, about taking young creative minds and creating things that are world class and that will make other South Africans want to aspire to be as dynamic and unique,” he says. Levy’s ambitious objectives might not be realised but he seems to be succeeding in establishing a new creative and cultural hub that will rival what has been established in Newtown.

Aside from the galleries and designers who Levy has attracted to Braamfontein, he also bought the Alexander Theatre in Siemens Street in 2006. Another victim of the deterioration that permeated the inner city it had been closed for almost 10 years. Following its refurbishment and restoration its doors opened again in 2007, becoming a platform for a cross-section of musical and theatrical acts from the Rent musical to staging Die Antwoord’s first Joburg appearance since their ascent to world fame. With the Alexander Theatre now open again, the nearby Joburg Theatre (previously called The Civic) and the new Wits Gallery, a large gallery due to open next year that will house the university’s extensive African art collection, Braamfontein could easily usurp Newtown as Joburg’s cultural centre. Levy and others believe the city never followed through on its pledge to Newtown, forcing the artistic community to shift its commitment to Braamfontein.
“Newtown has failed as a cultural hub. So much of what goes on in Joburg is about hype: you can brand anything. With Newtown the City identified the most low density place it could turn with least amount of investment and got  interesting tenants but then left it to its own devices,” says Levy.

Starting in 1995, Henri Vergon operated his art dealership out of Newtown before opening Afronova opposite the Market Theatre.
“It was a hellhole then and my customers used to get mugged on their way home,” he recalls. But he was determined to stay put in the city and given the Johannesburg Development Agency’s (JDA) investment in the suburb, was optimistic about its future. Since he was muscled out of the area – the space where his gallery stood is apparently making way for a shopping centre – he has become disillusioned with Newtown. He believes the City has sold out and reneged on its promise to foster a cultural community. Therefore, he was encouraged by the fact that this new cultural hub isn’t a City or JDA initiative. The fact that the people who run Carfax, Newtown’s first night club and the first establishment to exploit Joburg’s industrial wasteland, are now running gigs at the Alexander Theatre is proof of the shift away from Newtown and towards Braamfontein, says Vergon.

Because the City is not driving the cultural hub in Braamfontein, some are of the opinion that it is less contrived, that it is an “authentic cultural hub.” When Vergon had to move his gallery from Newtown he looked at premises in Parktown North and Parkview, where he could purchase a house which could be adapted to suit his business’s needs but having lived and worked in cities such as Paris and New York, he wanted to remain in a city environment.
“I could have had a great business in Parktown but it is against my beliefs – it’s a political stance.”
Vergon’s excitement about the possibilities that Braamfontein has to offer and the role that the gallery will play in its evolution is infectious. There is a glint in his eye when he talks about the suburb and I can tell that the move has not only reinvigorated him but his restored his belief in the regeneration of the city. His clientele have responded positively to the gallery’s relocation.
“It doesn’t have the same bad image – when I told people I was moving the gallery here they were very pleased.”
At its new Braamfontein location on the corner of Smit and De BeerAfronova’s inaugural exhibition attracts a huge crowd. Among those who have come to view Musa Nxumalo’s documentation of an alternative black youth movement are fashionistas, academics and trend-guru extraordinaire, Dion Chang. With his finger firmly on the pulse of new trends, Chang is already in negotiations with South Point, one of the main property developers in Braamfontein, to create a reality show that will document and aid some of the long-term traders in the area to update their businesses to suit the new trendy vibe.

Chang suggests it is better to try and help existing traders to adapt, rather than them being displaced at some later stage. But he might have his work cut out for him. Some traders who have been in Braamfontein for more than 15 years have already been forced to change their businesses to adapt to high crime rates. Such as one man, who prefers not to be named, who runs an Indian takeaway from behind an iron grill. After being held up three times and twice in a month last year, he says he was forced to put up bars around his counter. He thought of moving, especially after the last incident, but felt that as crime was an issue wherever one opened up a business in South Africa, it was worth staying put and working with the environment. He is sceptical about the creative fraternity moving into the suburb. The glass storefronts these new shops boast are not feasible, they will be “an invitation for criminals” he suggests.

Glass storefronts are a defining feature of the buildings in Levy’s extensive stable – he owns quite a number of buildings in the area, including the one housing the loft apartment in which he lives. Levy has done well for himself. When I arrive at his two-storey glass penthouse he is trying to figure out where to place two new artworks among a collection hanging on his wall which includes works by Walter Battiss and Robert Hodgins. With its slick pristine white interior his loft has the feel of an art gallery and with its chic fittings and open-plan design it is the apotheosis of city loft living.

Surrounded by glass walls Levy can enjoy views of his muse, Joburg. Clearly he tries to practice his philosophy of city living, which is governed by the notion that one shouldn’t just live in the city but be immersed in it, be part of it. For this reason Levy’s new street-level shops and galleries all boast expansive glass walls, allowing those inside to view the street outside and those on the street to
engage with the designer worlds contained within.
“We are open, transparent and engaging. You can come in and we are going to come outside.”

Levy believes this open policy will engender a safer environment. He also believes this architectural and social device will erase the divisions, both economic and racial, that mark our society.
“I don’t want to build big walls and big fences and burglar proofing. I don’t have that philosophy, but if you get enough people to kick start this system… then perhaps we can change things.
“I am not selling a pipe dream. I truly believe in this.”

For Vergon this was a major attraction. He looked at other inner city developments such as Arts on Main, an arts complex established
by Jonathan Liebmann on the East side of the inner city, but he says he didn’t want to be working out of “a compound”.
“I think it is great what they are doing there but I want to be on the street in a real environment. When you are on the street you are in touch with the city, with real life. You are not in an artificial environment,” he says.

Despite what Levy says, one senses that while he has a good idea of what kind of society he would like to build in Braamfontein, he hasn’t engaged with the suburb’s existing population. A huge proportion of the people on the other side of glass windows in Braamfontein are students like Nokwanda Sibiya, a 19-year-old who is studying towards a BA degree at Wits University and is living in student accommodation in the area. Braamfontein has been the domain of students since South Point bought up at least 10 buildings in
the suburb and kitted them out for a student population. This has changed the face of Braamfontein considerably, as businesses keen to cash in on the student population have moved into the suburb. One of the most dominant businesses in the area are hair salons catering for a black clientele. There could be well up to 50 in the neighbourhood.
“Everyone wants a piece of cake,” observes Pamela Pelema, the manager at Studio 4.
Pelema says this population are affluent and think little of paying up to R5 000 for hair treatments such as microbonding (attaching human hair extensions). Pelema would live in Braamfontein if she didn’t have a family – she suggests it is geared for young singletons. Nevertheless she enjoys working in it:
“Everything is here, it is getting more like Sandton. It is the place to be. It’s getting classy.”

Sibiya hangs out in the restaurants in Braamfontein but mostly travels with her friends to Sandton or Rosebank “to party”. Apart from the gigs at the Alexander Theatre, the Kitcheners Carvery bar at the old Milner Park Hotel and the trendy eatery, Narina Trogan, Braamfontein hasn’t boasted much of a nightlife. Well, until recently when South Point rolled out three new bars; the S-bar, a modest student hangout, #1 Bar, a more upmarket lounge that would attract academics and postgraduates and, of course, the ever popular Randlords. These bars, are, however, temporarily closed due to a snag with their liquor licences, according to Geoff O’Grady of South Point. It’s a temporary situation and once open again, Braamfontein’s nightlife should pick up.

South Point have more recently shifted their focus towards establishing a number of upmarket establishments such as Lamunu hotel, corner Melle and De Korte Streets, which has a bar and outdoor café overlooking The Grove, an outdoor student hangout where there is a giant screen to watch sporting events and films. A number of new restaurants, cafes and shops flanking the Grove are also planned. Levy is excited about the interest that Randlords has directed towards Braamfontein but given that most of South Point’s residential properties cater for a student population, he wonders what locals it is engineered to attract. He also doesn’t believe that a student population will help uplift the suburb.
“We need to make Braamfontein a viable living environment; how can you do that with thousands of students on your doorstep?”
It is students who pave the way for creative, pioneering new communities, suggests O’Grady.
A number of new restaurants, cafes and shops are also planned. South Point are catering for the short and long term residential needs of young professionals at Auckland House, on the corner of Smit and Biccard, and No 1 Biccard, where fully furnished apartments with swanky fittings and décor with a retro feel are available. These buildings share common features: expansive photographic
images of Joburg are plastered on the walls, celebrating the location. Almost all of them boast an expansive view of the city. Where once the inner city was viewed as an eyesore, it has become a selling point.

Like South Point Towers, where Randlords is located, all of these South Point buildings have a rooftop area. They are places where residents or visitors can escape when life at ground level becomes too overwhelming. Given the changes happening on the street, however, these detached vantage points will no longer serve as oases amid urban decay. Braamfontein’s transformation won’t happen overnight.
“When Narina Trogon restaurant opened it looked like it would revolutionise the world but most of the 300 people who came to the opening never returned. It’s all about numbers, we need 20 different locations all within safe walking distance so that people will come and spend the whole day here,” says Levy.
Vergon concurs.
“We have all these wonderful little islands in Joburg, we just need to join them up and then we will have a proper city,” he says.


Charl Bezuidenhout said...

The problem is that those with disposable income that matters tend to avoid crossing Empire Road. Maybe once in a while for the opening of a new venue or the occasional play at the Market (hardly), but that's as good as it gets. having said this, maybe Braamfontein will be different because of its closer approximity.

Anonymous said...

Great insights Mary. The question of how the art community as a privileged social group interacts with the working class is a really interesting question. It is very fashionable to practice 'socially engaged art' but it very rarely actually addresses 'ordinary people'.