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.