This series that explores Joburg-centric research-based practices – which, for now, I refer to as ‘The System Turn’ – describes artistic work in the city that is concerned with site-specific understanding, production, visibilisation or subversion of systems. For now in my thinking, I am interested in work that engages political identity, histories of resistance and the production of space, particularly space in Joburg. What I hope to achieve through these texts is not to create a taxonomy into which these practices fit, but rather, to engage a kind of curatorial exercise — a collection of ideas set to play off together. In the preliminary considerations that have led to this text, I have become aware of, or recalled, more and more related Joburg spaces, practitioners, educators, archives and organisations that are engaging with this type of work. Thus, these texts hope to operate as examples and iterations of system-related practice with sincere investment in the city, taking place in networks not directly connected with the commercial art market.
In Part I, I looked to histories of gold mining and the early industrialisation of Johannesburg. I also made mention of what I believe to be a significant, and fraught, representational moment in Joburg (and South Africa) — the 1936 Empire Exhibition, which included (Black) human exhibits as part of its celebration of Joburg’s industrial success, fifty years after the discovery of gold at Langlaagte. Kaelo Molefe’s notion of the Black Lithosphere offered a framework for understanding the kinds of historical violence of colonial extraction, where Black people and indigenous spaces are similarly transformed into property. While Molefe makes clear the conditions and consequences of extraction, practitioners like Santu Mofokeng – and in particular his The Black Photo Album: Look at me – offers us histories of Black self representation that existed despite unthinkable conditions. The work of room19isaFactory also considers histories of Black resistance, particularly through Black spatial interventions, in the “Quiet Architectures” of domestic township homes. Their project takes place in Kudzanai Chiurai’s Library of Things We Forgot to Remember — an ongoing, living engagement with an African and African diasporic audio archive (amongst other things). Finally, MADEYOULOOK’s extensive interdisciplinary work offered an example of lineages of Joburg practice, through the duo’s engagement with Mofokeng and his work, and in their considered propositions for people-centric readings of urban space, which transcend the foreclosed colonial spatial narratives of Joburg ‘official’ town plans.
In this, Part II of this series, I draw from a conversation with Invade members Queenzela Mokoena, Omphemetse Ramatlhatse and Nyakallo Phamuli in order to think about independent printing, publishing and reading systems, as well as the collaborations arising from these processes. Furthermore, and in connection, I begin to elaborate on practices that engage with artists writing other worlds and imagining other kinds of participation with the environment. Interestingly, water systems are a pressing matter of Joburg practice, and here I engage with work from Abri de Swardt, Sinethemba Twalo and The Orange River collective. Between and around these practitioners are a myriad of spaces, organisations, projects, small businesses, pedagogues and ideas that operate in close relation and proximity.
Invasions: Knowledge Dissemination Systems
Invade are a collective of writer-printmaker-zine-maker-educators interested in “invasion” as an approach to disseminate knowledge to all kinds of spaces. Operating from politics of Black Queerness, they are attentive to both lived experience and theoretical discourse. The group are significantly influenced by their former lecturer at Wits School of Art (WSoA), Dr Koleka Shange, Black Feminist scholars including Pumla Gqola, the Caribbean heavy-hitter Sylvia Wynter, and more. One of their former lecturers, Rangoato Hlasane, is responsible for teaching the practitioners risograph printing and introducing them to an ongoing influence and inspiration of theirs, the cultural work group Medu Art Ensemble.1Rangoato is also a member of the Another Roadmap Africa cluster, and is a co-founder of Keleketla! Library.
Invade, through their combination of knowledge, imagination and hands-on printmaking and collage experience, is able to produce systems of making that encourage participation. They make zines with kids, artists, activists, and archivists, write and conduct research, and print publications in collaboration. Currently, the three are involved in a book collaboration with Kenyan collective Kazi ya Mkhono, exploring the practices of artisans living in Kenya and South Africa. In keeping with their invasion imperative, they will soon facilitate a workshop at the University of Bremen with a group of anthropology students. Crucially though, all members — Nyakallo, Queenzela and Omphemetse — are writers in their own right, and talk about the plethora of ideas they have, which are biding their time in Google docs.
Sustaining autonomy in systems of independent practice is an ongoing challenge, but hopefully, we can look forward to the collective’s work coming full circle, in the form of self-written, self-designed, self-published works.
Immersion: Writing and Reading Systems
In 2021, artist, writer and researcher Abri de Swardt published a text called Riverwork in wherewithall’s online library. Wherewithall, an independent organisation, founded by Kundai Moyo, Amy Watson and Chloë Reid, has been consistently growing its library of tools and commissioned texts since 2022, creating a small base of material, discursive and curatorial resource support for independent art practitioners in Johannesburg. De Swardt’s fictional story is premised on a movement of artists who give up on the art world and decide instead to disperse and display their practices via the river:
“The river, though measured, zoned, charted, managed, forsaken and owned, was irreducible to its parts. The river was an artefact of desire reckoning with time, their works libations to a chemistry they could neither intuit nor replicate. The river was truly the opposite of a desk.”
The conceptual and physical infrastructures of the art world gradually collapse into the relative chaos of riveryness. Artworks race, degrade and grow muddier in streams, currents and whorls. In De Swardt’s story, a number of breakout movements, fixated on different aspects of the river system, come into being amongst the daring constituents. For instance, the “Rapids” want to dismantle the imposed separation between artwork, artist and river, searching for immersive methods of viewership, with one subgroup, “Amphibian Rapids,” going so far as to fully immerse themselves in the water for close-up participatory viewing.
De Swardt has a consistent and repeated investment in water, not only for its physical and poetic properties, but also as a historical witness and knowledge system. A number of his projects, often involving collage, water, sound and film (amongst other things) are invested in the collusions and tensions between whiteness, colonialism and Queerness, and how these might be read through the political matter of water — rivers, oceans, and so on.
In 2019, De Swardt and Sinethemba Twalo – a Joburg artist, DJ, writer and lecturer in the Department of Curatorial, Public and Visual Cultures at WSoA – put together a reading group To see With The Ears and Speak With The Nose, commissioned by POOL and Oceanic Humanities for the Global South at WiSER. The group sat for a series of sessions, discussing texts related to water (or fluid things), exploring what they called “a hydromechanics of (dis)solution, a streaming of bodies, and a pooling of temporalities.” The session I attended ended up in Ellis Park Swimming Pool, where we were invited to get fully immersed as we read Putuma poetry and reflected on Jonathan Cane’s “Cruising queer, old Joburg” from inside the water, or in the poolside sun. POOL Space, named in appropriate (though much preceding) parallel to this project, is an NGO founded by Amy Watson and Mika Conradie, largely supporting experimental artistic projects in Joburg.
Damming: Studying Contemporary River Systems
The city of Johannesburg is known for its extreme dryness and water scarcity: it became industrialised because of the discovery of gold, rather than because of the availability of a water source (which is the origin story of most cities.) It receives its water from the Vaal Dam, which in turn receives a massive supply from Lesotho, in a complex damming and hydroelectric system, known as the Vaal-Tugela project. Engagements with water from Joburg are thus imbued with a certain complexity, where the water system is hard won, and water’s political status is made clear through unequal distribution.
Amy Watson, Sinethemba Twalo, Nina Ruth Barnett, and Dee Marco are currently in the early phases of The Orange River Project, for which the first order of inquiry was a road trip along a section of the river beginning at the Gariep Dam and ending at the mouth in Alexander Bay. The project, to “document the relationships between the region’s changing ecology and history,” is affective as much as it is studied. In documentation about big rivers, information often arrives in the languages of environmental mapping, policy and census data. But what do other, mixed modes of research, whether descriptive, purely observational, conversational, poetic and/or historical, do to the ways we think about the Orange River, a water system fraught with the violence and dispossession of coloniality?
On Wednesday, 9 November 2022, Watson took some precise, descriptive notes about the nature of the mist and light refraction over the Gariep dam and surrounds. Barnett, meanwhile, was struck by the dual systems of containment and monitoring that are essential to any project of damming. Twalo talks about the “intimately disorganized” spaces, lives and communities along the river, historically subject to the kinds of violence, dispossession and alienated labour that are always heavily pronounced in the waters of colonial occupation. Marco is struck by what haunts the mouth of the river as it meets the coast: for many millions of Africans, coastlines signified a clear break with home, belonging and familial life.
As water systems continue to face further threat in neoliberal time – from privatisation and metering, to appropriation and re-direction under major systems of oppression – this kind of relational research feels important. The Orange River Project report is unconventional and layered, making no demands of the river’s future, but rather, coming to an understanding of what this water body – so crucial to Johannesburg and Southern Africa – is, and how it has been made to act.
The practitioners of this section are all invested somehow in the production of knowledge, primarily through writing and reading. For De Swardt and Twalo, the reading strategy is immersion: embodied, present, affective reading. Invade’s projects of publication and education are possible through the invasion of spaces with knowledges that are largely marginalised: Black Queer living and thriving despite violent conditions, and dreams of the future regardless of constant threat. Such insistent systems, which resist attempts at ‘damming’ and appropriation, remain important to the production of knowledge in Joburg.
Part III of The System Turn in Joburg Contemporary Art will consist of an interview with Sinethemba Twalo about his practice and ideas on Joburg.