Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Demystifying Hillbrow: the X-Homes Johannesburg project

Like a devout Catholic visiting St Peter’s for the first time I stood below the Hillbrow Tower transfixed, marvelling at its wide concrete trunk. It was a novelty to be viewing this quintessential feature of the Joburg skyline close up, on foot. For a born and bred Joburger, such an experience is akin to “coming home”.
Like most Joburgers, my more recent forays into Hillbrow have been from the safety of a speeding car. From this vantage point you can’t glean very much – and I never dreamed that this would be a disadvantage.
Hillbrow might once have been a desirable spot, when in the seventies Italian, German and Portuguese immigrants installed European café society culture into the suburb, giving it a distinctly cosmopolitan feel. But in the late eighties it began to undergo a shift when an influx of South Africans looking to escape violent upheavals in the townships settled in the suburb and surrounding areas. By the late nineties Hillbrow had become home to a new set of immigrants; this time from the rest of the continent. Buildings were hijacked by thugs, landlords reneged on their responsibilities, the municipality cut off basic services and the physical appearance of the neighbourhood deteriorated dramatically.

For those who recalled a carefree youth in the area, the deterioration of Hillbrow became emblematic of the social and structural degeneration of the inner city, a consequence of a new political (dis)order. Guy Tillim’s sombre photographic essay, simply titled Joburg, which documented the grimy dilapidated interiors and exteriors of this collapsing urban landscape, encapsulated the degradation, unwittingly confirming that this European foothold had been lost. Submerged in a process of urban entropy it had become a locale for the impoverished, the disenfranchised and the dejected.

While reports about the Johannesburg Development Agency’s Better Buildings project, an initiative to reclaim, restore and reinvigorate dilapidated edifices in the suburb, surfaced, negative perceptions about Hillbrow have remained steadfast. But, of course, just as the rest of Joburg is constantly being reinvented, so too has Hillbrow’s character been steadily shifting over time. It’s just that no one noticed or cared; photographers and journalists have a keener interest in neglect and degradation.

The X-Homes project, an unconventional performance art initiative-cum-tour of the suburb funded by the Goethe Institute and curated by Christoph Gurk, offers us an in-depth and multi-perspectival view of Hillbrow. On foot. We might be observing life in this suburb but we are steeped in the action we encounter, which both confirms and contradicts the stereotypical ideas of the suburb. It’s not a one-dimensional place.
In a dagga smoke-filled flat we encounter a young woman who leads us into her bedroom. She puts us at our ease, addressing us as if we are prospective tenants. We begin to imagine life in this cramped flat that houses five young people. Makeshift bedrooms are created in the lounge area. Heavy fabrics hang from the ceiling, demarcating the different sleeping areas. Two young men are passing a joint. When I ask them what they do for a living they shrug their shoulders and laugh. The young woman’s boyfriend grows angry and starts to beat her. A knife is drawn and we are quickly escorted out of the flat.