I have a collection of photographs of Johannesburg that I take each time I visit that infamous city. I go up as often as possible, for commissions, to exhibit, to work, to visit friends. Any excuse will do. I’ve never really gone there “to photograph,” but when I land, my camera is instinctively by my side. My senses are heightened: I notice the textures, the lighting, the noises, the ache of time on the buildings, the scratchings on the walls. There is a soundtrack to the city that echoes in my heart, of the pain of existence, a form of complex nostalgia. It feels like a kind of home.
I am aware that all the perceptions I will present here are fundamentally flawed in their one-sidedness. They are observations of what I’ve seen in the changing and bustling life of the country that holds my early years. So with that in mind, I’ll attempt to relate what lies behind my personal picture of Johannesburg.
Cape Town is where I’m from and where I still live. It has a strong energy, reinforced by the magnificence of the ocean and the mountains. However, despite its reputation during the struggle years of being the most liberal city of South Africa, the city is so obviously yearning to be something other than what it is: European. The government spends endless amounts of money on keeping up appearances and introducing bylaws that cater to tourists and protect the richer areas from “nuisance,” whether it’s begging, skateboarding, barking dogs, vendors, loitering, street art, climbing public trees, washing cars, or hanging washing in public. Politicians and policy makers continue to bolster the “safe” zones that Cape Town inherited after the fall of apartheid. Parodoxically, this only entrenches the segregation of the social classes; if you live in the wealthier zones you won’t have any idea what is happening in the outlying zones of Lavender Hill, Delft, or the township of Khayelitsha.
This is not unique to Cape Town; similarities can be found in how the people live behind the electric fences and within the gated communities of Johannesburg city. But there is something else there. After the fall of apartheid, the Central Business District fell as businesses fled the city for fear of what it was becoming, and blocks of flats were subsequently overtaken by mafias who rented them out with little sanitation, overcrowding, and no regard for safety. The city became a high-rise ghetto, dangerous and dirty. The Red Ants came out in full force, viciously evicting squatters from these buildings, army style. Today, buildings stand empty. Outsiders are terrified of Johannesburg. There are the rumors, vicious stories, mental images of hijackings and post-democratic chaos. It’s a place riddled with fables, misconceptions, and contradictions. Yet some of its inhabitants are rewriting these notions and weaving in a new, brave and unapologetic energy that makes other cities feel dim by comparison. As in many cities, it is the youth who are not afraid to reinvent the present moment.
When I was a child I would go up to Johannesburg from Cape Town with my mother to visit family. I remember the heat, the thin air, the fires on the side of the road, the dry grass. The first time I went on my own was en route to London. I was leaving South Africa to explore the world, to find myself. I caught a twenty-seven hour train. It was thirty-five degrees celsius. I shared a carriage with three fat African mamas who had religious ceremonies talking in tongues. When I got there, Rasty took me painting in the early hours of the morning. Mixed with the excitement of naive youth and freedom, I had my first real taste of Johannesburg at that moment. There is a strong graffiti scene that’s grown a lot in the last few years. You see a lot of productions there, and hardly anything gets cleaned. The council sees graffiti as something that can uplift the city, so they have a pretty progressive attitude towards it. Because of the harsh environment, however, there is not much street art. Only the tougher, more traditional graffiti boys know how to navigate the city’s threats and dangers. Hopefully, there will be more experimentation and street art in the coming years. There is infinite potential for it.
Johannesburg has become my favorite place to paint, and on my escapades I would always photograph moments that caught my eye. I also started to document the anonymous scrawling that I encountered, in Johannesburg and beyond, of which there are four main types:
— Stowaway graffiti: usually found under bridges in port towns, so not part of the Johannesburg photos, these images are some of the most profound, paintings of ships and tragic poems of escape and dreams of a better life.
— Gang graffiti: also not as prevalent in Johannesburg, as the gangs are mostly situated in Cape Town.
— Random scrawlings on walls: marks and thoughts left by random individuals inscribed with arbitrary materials.
— Evicted buildings: messages left in the high rise empty buildings of Johannesburg, which speak of the people who were living in them a brief time ago.
Scrawlings, above all, have been an influence on my work in and out of the studio. They are so direct. They are messages from those who have been made invisible by the system, and they are one of the treasures that I’ve found growing up in South Africa.
lives and works in Capetown. Her images reconstruct lost objects, broken-down cars, old factories and dusty side roads of forgotten towns. Faith investigates how humans interact with their environment, what scratches and memories they leave behind.
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