Maverick Life


Artists Dada Khanyisa, William Kentridge heal Johannesburg’s wounds and put the Spring back in her step

Artists Dada Khanyisa, William Kentridge heal Johannesburg’s wounds and put the Spring back in her step
FNB Art Joburg will return to Sandton Convention Centre for its 16th edition. (Photo: Supplied)

In the first weekend in Spring, we left William Kentridge’s studio called The Centre for the Less Good Idea in downtown Johannesburg’s Maboneng art district, mesmerised and enchanted.  

Johannesburg’s maestro presented an episode in his series How where artists-in-residence reveal to audiences their method and praxis of the work that eventually becomes the art as it is delivered or performed. 

As we left, I wanted to pass 80 Alberts Street in nearby Marshalltown, the scene of the fire in which 77 people died, most of them burnt beyond recognition. I had spent Thursday and Friday trying to get to the bottom of what happened. By Saturday, my colleague Mark Heywood was reporting new violence and pain as residents came to collect what was left after the flames died, or to pray, or to stay. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Some Johannesburg inferno survivors refuse shelter, opt to sleep outside fire-ravaged building

You couldn’t get close to the cop cars and raids on adjacent buildings as a panicked city administration pretended to do something after decades of neglect of the inner city. 

How do I begin to understand my city of such duality? So much pain. And so much beauty. There is so much neglect and mediocrity in leadership. And so much exquisite human attention to detail globally heralded culture and art. 

I have returned to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Danger of a Single Story this week to understand it. This is the essay and talk in which she guides us to embrace complexity, duality, and multiplicity of meaning. And it is so apt with Joburg. The city is not one story but many. Decline and neglect is one city narrative. But so is hustle, cutting-edge art and a cultural scene that can keep you busy daily. This is also urban meaning. 

Most people choose only one. But to understand Joburg, you must know her many stories. 

Mandla Sibeko

Mandla Sibeko. (Photo: Supplied by FNB Art Joburg/ Maria McCloy)

This year, the FNB Art Director Mandla Sibeko and his wife Naledi Mabuse have come as if called. Sibeko curates and directs the annual FNB Art Fair at Sandton. For over a decade, it has become a pre-eminent node for African artists, curators, collectors, and those of us who come just to bask in the beauty of a continent arriving at another of its high ages. 

In the past few years, I’ve seen work that makes my spirit joyful from Ethiopia, Angola, Zimbabwe and more. This year, Sibeko wanted art back in the inner city.  

FNB Art Joburg will return to Sandton Convention Centre for its 16th edition. (Photo: Supplied by FNB Art Joburg/ Maria McCloy)

Johannesburg Art Gallery

FNB Art Joburg will return to Sandton Convention Centre for its 16th edition. (Photo: Supplied by FNB Art Joburg/ Maria McCloy)

Johannesburg Art Gallery

FNB Art Joburg will take place from 8–10 September 2023.(Photo: Supplied by FNB Art Joburg/ Maria McCloy)


Dada Khanyisa breathes life back into the Johannesburg Art Gallery

The Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), situated at the edge of Johannesburg just below Hillbrow, also fell victim to the city’s inability to manage anything and the underfunding of public art (Julia Evans wrote about it here). 

A friend has whispered that you can get great works from its collection at knock-down prices as art collectors haul the job off to safety. I don’t even want to hear such stories, but one does. The work should remain in the commons, the (free) public square for all to see and enjoy and be enhanced by.  

So, I couldn’t believe it when publicist Maria McCloy invited us to the opening of the 2022 FNB Art winner Dada Khanyisa at JAG. Who even knew that JAG was breathing again? We headed to the opening, and it was beautiful. Beautiful people, Spring light filtering into the courtyard, children playing. Joburg joy. 

Khanyisa exhibited a series made in Cape Town, their home now. The back story is one of serendipity. Khanyisa grew up in a flat near the JAG. Their aunt would bring them to the gallery as they were dating someone who worked there. The young Dada would draw and dream. 

“We committed that we were going back to JAG, and we wanted to put the FNB Art prize-winner there to get people back and reclaim the space. The Johannesburg Art Gallery is important because artists can’t only exhibit in galleries — you need spaces that are free and accessible.”

Khanyisa works in Cape Town now and exhibits globally. The JAG exhibition is called Cape Town. Khanyisa is an animator, and they bring this aspect to their work. The finely observed portraits of life in Cape Town (3D, wood, plastic, glass) drew a crowd to JAG. The artist counts Johannes Phokela, Sam Nhlengethwa, and Johannes Vermeer as inspiration, and you can see this in their detailed observation of character. 

Johannesburg Art Gallery, Dada Khanyisa

Amawele, Themba 2023 by Dada Khanyisa. (Photo: From the artist’s website)

Dada Khanyisa, Johannesburg Art Gallery

Amawele 2023 by Dada Khanyisa. (Photo: From the artist’s website)

Khanyisa exhibits or is in the permanent collections of galleries worldwide; it was a treat to see them in Joburg.

The ‘Pantone tea party edition’, what Khanyisa calls ‘the Beyonce of the show’ on their Instagram account, is the centre-piece. We (my husband Spencer and me) most enjoyed their piece made after they observed people enjoying the Company Gardens as Parliament burnt. It says so much about the irrelevance of the legislative House to the country for whom it once meant so much as a symbol of democratic change. (The exhibition runs until February 2024. You must go).


The How of William Kentridge 

Maboneng is much studied and much loved or much derided. It is valued for how it has joined suburb back to the city, for its vibe and the views of the Big Smoke, for the Market on Main and the Centre for the Less Good Idea. It is derided for attempting to gentrify the gritty inner-city and allegedly pushing out waste recyclers and others defined as Joburg’s subaltern. As someone who grew up in the district, I think you can do two things simultaneously: create an arts, culture and party district that attracts the whole variety of Johannesburg’s people. And provide great social housing for the recyclers, traders and hustlers living in so-called hijacked buildings.  

Maboneng is also different today from the hipster, arty, touristy place that won its acclaim a decade ago. The district is where BYTs (beautiful young things) come to party at Club H2O, the Maboneng Lifestyle Centre or Gerards (my favourite). The street pumps with bass as clubs compete for clients. The Ethiopian owners of the Lifestyle rooftop club draw a loyal crowd, and the view of the sunset to the West is a thing to behold. 

Johannesburg art, Maboneng Lifestyle Centre

Visitors at the Maboneng Lifestyle Centre. (Photo: Supplied)

BMW Art Generation (Photo: Supplied by FNB Art Joburg/ Maria McCloy)

Johannesburg Art Gallery

BMW Art Generation (Photo: Supplied by FNB Art Joburg/ Maria McCloy)

BMW Art Generation (Photo: Supplied by FNB Art Joburg/ Maria McCloy)

The art has long left the street, but this year, Sibeko and BMW Art Generation brought it back for a weekend. There were talks and exhibitions and performances and Spring joy. 

“Joburg needs to have these conversations again, and we wanted to start an inter-generational dialogue. Dada’s focus is on joy, and we wanted to take this approach,” says Sibeko. 

The framing epigraph Wild by Ben Okri captured the spirit. 

Yesterday’s road has led

To yesterday’s destination.

Today is a new chaos.

A new journey. A new city. 

Needing new paths. And new standards. 

The architect Rem Koolhaas, South Africa’s dancer-laureate Gregory Maqoma and three photographs from the Ernest Cole archive, not seen on public exhibition before, were on the programme. A quad of African art collectors shaped a conversation on the methods and complexities of collecting. Ngaire Blankenberg expertly moderated Maruping Mangwedi, Pulane Kingston and Dr Joy Simmons.

William Kentridge and Nhlanhla Mhlangu shared the How of a forthcoming production called The Great Yes and The Great No at the stage of The Centre for the Less Good Idea. This production is another in his line of interrogation of colonialism: this time about slavery and the Caribbean island of Martinique. 

It features the philosophy of Negritude of Aimé Césaire and Susanne Césaire. It also includes the ideas of Franz Fanon and Léopold Senghor. It creates counterpoints using Josephine Bonaparte (born in Martinique) and the American-born French superstar Josephine Baker. From the masks, the choir, and the deconstruction of text, this will be another epic production fitting like a glove into our decolonising epoch. 

 Kentridge has long resisted the impulse to the single story. So does Khanyisa. So should we in thinking about Johannesburg today. DM 

To see more of what Mandla Sibeko and Naledi Mabuse have in store for you at the FNB Art fair in Johannesburg this weekend, click here


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Anne Gordon says:

    Thank you, Ferial, for this beautiful article about art in the city centre. It gave me hope about the ongoing cultural life in Jozi and the contributions that creative continue to play in maintaining the city’s extraordinary energy. I won’t be there this year for the art fair etc but you gave me a wonderful glimpse into a world I love!

  • Graham McIntosh says:

    Magisterial piece, Ferial. Thanks.

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