Open City 2023
26.08 - 17.09.2023
Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvellous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes.
This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.
So writes Jane Jacobs – urbanist, writer and self-proclaimed professional walker of cities – in her landmark book on the complex field of city-building: The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She is arguably one of the world’s most important figures in shaping both real cities and our everyday ideas about what makes a city good and liveable for all who live in it. However, though she was writing and advocating for the ‘ballet of the good city sidewalk’ in a New York City of the fifties and sixties, she might as well have been writing about an experience of dancing through Johannesburg during art fair season in general – and FNB Art Joburg’s Open City in particular.
Because that’s what it feels like: an intricate ensemble of art, music, performance, food and fashion dotted around Johannesburg every day for over consecutive 16 days. One can only tap-dance through it in an attempt to experience even a fraction of it.
So, tap-dance I did.
With very little time on my side to dig into every one of the 30-plus cultural offerings and openings curated by Open City this year, I had to be strategic. When in doubt: Keyes Art Mile in the leafy, rapidly-growing (read: gentrifying) area of Rosebank. I like to think of this precinct as the starter pack for all things Art™ in Johannesburg for a number of key reasons. The first of these reasons is that of a sense of cultural density: the number of cultural spaces, happenings and gatherings concentrated in a walkable area.
At Keyes Art Mile, one can easily spend hours flitting between galleries like BKhz and Everard Read at street level, before embarking on the mini-adventure that is climbing the Circa Gallery ramp to a neat rooftop overlooking a neater, tree-filled Johannesburg. Then there’s Studio Nxumalo, Origin Art, the building’s own art collection and a number of project spaces on the way back down and out of the bubble that is this precinct.
A delicious bubble it is – especially during Open City. Here is where I encounter Bazobuya… they are coming back – a group show hosted by Occupying the Gallery with the esteemed Mary Sibande and Lawrence Lemaonana. Curated by Lemaonana, this show compelled me with a single, siren-red wall across which the intricate paper cutouts of Lusanda Ndita were stretched. Inside, I am welcomed by the multimedia works of emerging artists working in photography, printmaking, video, documentary and more: Bongani Ndlovu, Hoek Swaratlhe, Mlondi Magubane and Ngoma KaMphahlele. In this space, there is a focus on experiments in work as well as the installation of work. Here is where portraits highlighting pantsula queens and kings become floor-to-ceiling wallpapers, where the wardrobes used in another series of portraits are featured too, and where a documentary following South Africa’s Jazz Appreciation Society offers a perfect, unobtrusive soundtrack for the entire occasion.
From here, inspired and enlightened by the ensemble of artists and works I could not have anticipated finding with Occupying The Gallery, I continued to the ‘hopping’ part of this curated gallery-hop. Origin Art, nearby, feels a little like stumbling into a family gathering of Johannesburg-based oil painter Sue Martin’s – whose work, alongside Cape Town-based photographer Matt Slater, is on exhibition in a show titled Tracks and Traces: Abstraction in Painting and Photography. As a sucker for abstraction, I manoeuvre my way in front of the collaboration between the two artists: a promise of an “evocative dialogue between painting and photography, abstraction and reality.” But, as the buzz of friendly banter grows louder around me, I’m drawn to the quiet solidity of Matt Slater’s Index of Metals – a photographic series of what looks like metal somewhere between 2 and 3D.
I retreat from this family-esque reunion of a show, appreciating the fact that in one building, there are many faces and moods. The large Lulama Wolf and Trevor Stuurman portraits behind me support this fact: one abstract, one photographed. They offer two versions of the one thing art offers in multitudes: intimacy.
Being fairly centrally located, Keyes is also walking distance to the nearby Goethe-Institut – where the group show, SENSES, curated by Kamogelo Wazala is taking place. I walk-run here, only to catch the tail end of the walkabout – that is visitors walking out. Still, I manage to get a sense of SENSES: which is another welcomed experiment in exhibition design that employs – and plays with – all the senses.
Featuring works by Nkhensani Mkhari, Bulumko Mbete, Bonolo Kavula, Brian Montshiwa, Nyakallo Maleke and Pebofatso Mokoena in the Goethe-Institut’s space proves relieving, for here is a space that regularly incubates and platforms emerging artists with a primary focus on catalysing the arts as a vehicle for knowledge production. Here, the commercial is the secondary, and with that – all demands on knowing how to differentiate one’s ‘material’ from ‘materiality’ can rest for a bit. Here, one can dig into what art can also teach us – not incidentally, but by design.
With this in mind, I suffer a major FOMO-attack: for the fear of missing out on perhaps one of the most exciting items on Open City’s agenda – Exhibition Match – is actualised: I realise that I will not be able to attend this “unravelling the nexus of art, football and popular culture in 1990s South Africa” curated by Phokeng Setai and Alex Richards. Having already witnessed the morbidly intriguing, interactive rolling heads football booth at the FNB Art Fair a few days earlier, I already knew that the match itself would likely only build on, and expand, the very idea of an exhibition. Like many football and art fans, I’d have to watch this one play out on my timeline.
However, merely being alerted to its existence brought to mind the idea of city spaces as literal as a soccer field also being spaces of worldliness in a country whose dominant spatial narrative is that of segregation. UWC’s Prof. Premesh Lalu speaks about this together with UCT’s Prof. Edgar Pieterse – both esteemed advocates of reimagining South Africa’s cities – on the topic of the future of our cities. Citing the example of a cinema in Cape Town’s Salt River suburb, he implores us to “think about new ways of anticipating a concept of freedom.”
This spirit of re-making freedom is felt throughout Open City. It is overwhelming and anxiety-inducing in its hyperactivity, but it is also – perhaps paradoxically – comforting. In its quest to “encourage Johannesburg’s visitors and residents to immerse themselves in Johannesburg’s rich and layered cultural offerings to the point where it becomes a part of their everyday,” Open City proves itself capable of having us run around the city, paralysed by choice, and trying desperately to see everything everywhere all at once.
If this isn’t one of the ways in which a complex, intricate, multi-faceted dance of a ‘good’ city goes, I don’t know what is.