August 20, 2015
Johannesburg – South Africa’s headquarters of big business, abandoned gold mines”¦and criminally overlooked world-class art. Art is everywhere in Johannesburg. Displayed. Sold. Provoking debate. Prettifying corporate foyers, revivifying concrete flyovers. And most of Joburg’s best is free to see; you just need to know where to look. Here are ten of the top places to see Johannesburg art on your next trip.
Across the road from the Jan Smuts Avenue “˜gallery strip’ and walking distance from Rosebank’s shopping and hotel hub, Goodman (above) has a reputation for showing mind-blowing works by iconic artists – the kind of exhibitions that can quickly bring you down to size, and just as easily inspire you to breathtaking heights. Besides its associations with seminal South Africa artists, it’s remembered for hosting 1985’s barrier-shifting “˜Art against Apartheid’ exhibition and continues associations with socially-invested artists and photographers such as internationally acclaimed Jodi Bieber. Look out for the Alfredo Jaar exhibition, which explores the politically-motivated works of the New York-based artist. It’s running until 23 March 2016 and is one of several to feature this year in recognition of the gallery’s 50th anniversary.
Each September, the city goes gaga for contemporary art as some 10,000 visitors pile in to browse and buy at the FNB Joburg Art Fair (9-11 September 2016), a cultural extravaganza that brings together the country’s best galleries, along with a few representatives from farther afield. It’s all in celebration of up-to-the-minute South African and African art.
Down the road, direction Sandton, Circa is housed in a building of such architectural audaciousness that it sometimes trumps what’s shown inside. The elliptical structure, with its aluminium-finned faÃ§ade, conceals a curving entrance ramp that’s a marvel of space and light, evoking a sense of ceremony as you enter. After dark it’s transformed with neon-coloured lighting. Exhibition space is small, but shows tend to be ambitious and sometimes a little off-the-wall, ranging from sculptures made from found objects draped in bizarre fashion, right through to taxidermy and disassembled pianos.
Just across the road is Circa’s 102-year-old sibling, Everard Read (the country’s oldest commercial gallery), where contemporary paintings share space with antique South African furniture and artworks going back to the gallery’s establishment when it was housed in the city centre. You’ll find some of the biggest names in South African art here, displayed as if part of some wonderfully rambling home – take care not to miss out on any part of it.
One of South Africa’s foremost authorities on art collecting, David Krut has several Johannesburg art spaces and another down in Cape Town. He has a gallery with small-scale exhibitions on Ave Jan Smuts, just opposite the Goodman. It’s a good space to pick out prints of works by stellar artists such as William Kentridge, Diane Victor and Stephen Hobbs – either Krut or a member of his team will gladly assist collectors new to South African art. Krut also produces art books, and in Maboneng’s Arts on Main, he has a combined print workshop, gallery and bookstore.
Launched in May 2015, this offshoot of the Nirox Foundation (an outdoor sculpture park and creative hub outside the city) is essentially a reincarnation of NIROXprojects, which previously occupied the same converted warehouse space in Arts on Main. Co-founded by artist and curator Jonathan Freemantle (who helped establish the Edinburgh International Fashion Festival), Hazard goes beyond the usual gallery framework by bringing buzz and energy to a traditionally subdued realm. Events have included Bubblegum Club Nights (a vibe-y bash that featured a pop-up shop, a fashion show, live performances and a DJ set). They’ve also hosted a street food festival. Despite such populist leanings, the gallery successfully exhibits the work of important artists including Kudzanai Chiurai, Willem Boshoff and Gerald Machona.
The Museum of African Design isn’t exactly an art gallery, but it’s an audacious, first-of-its-kind space, and makes a bodacious boast, claiming museum status despite lacking a permanent collection to call its own. It has managed to capture artists’ imaginations, though, and exhibitions here benefit from the voluminous proportions of the repurposed raw, open factory dating back to 1938. Focused on contemporary African art, fashion and culture, the 2,500 square meter high-ceilinged space occasionally showcases Africa’s most cutting-edge design ideas. Such exhibitions, together with various other art-leaning events, are becoming evermore frequent in the space, which only opened in 2013.
The sale of a diamond financed Joburg’s first gallery. Lady Phillips, wife of the first chairman of the Rand Mines Company, sold her 21-carat ring to purchase three paintings by Wilson Steer in 1904. She grew her collection using monetary contributions from well-off connections and then commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens to design the elegant building that now houses everything from Flemish and Dutch paintings to the Brenthurst Collection of African Art, comprising curios plundered by European explorers in the 19th century. Plus there’s plenty more up-to-date modern and contemporary work – Rodin and Picasso rub shoulders with South African masters JH Pierneef, Walter Battiss and Gerald Sekoto, and there’s a lovely sculpture garden, too. After celebrating its 100th anniversary in November, the Johannesburg Art Gallery has undergone a much-needed **bleep** and tuck, with 6 new exhibitions launched to mark the centenary.
Founded by Monna and Lee Mokoena in a converted family home in leafy Parktown North, this was the first wholly black-owned gallery in the country. It quickly established itself at the forefront of the contemporary art scene, taking on international stars and helping local talent shine. It was Momo, for example, that discovered Mary Sibande (whose work is pictured above) during her student graduation exhibition, and within a few short years launched her into the international spotlight. Gallery Momo opened a space in Cape Town in 2015, which plays host to a number of worthy exhibitions.
Forming part of the Wits University Cultural Precinct, just three blocks from Nelson Mandela Bridge, WAM is situated within a steadily regenerating, increasingly hip pocket of Braamfontein. This university-owned gallery is in possession of the most extensive collection of African artworks in Southern Africa – some 9,000 catalogued items, ranging from as early as the 4th century. Only a fraction is exhibited at any one time, along with the work of invited artists. Often representing the cutting edge of what’s happening in South Africa right now, the museum also presents benchmark exhibitions – memorable shows have included William Kentridge’s tapestry exhibition, a 2014 photographic show by Zanele Maholi, and an encyclopaedic mid-2015 South African beadwork exhibition (“˜Beadwork, Art and the Body’), for which beaded chandeliers were commissioned for the gallery’s café.
Near Mandela Boulevard, at one end of Braamfontein’s youthful fashion, art and design hub, this stripped-back gallery space holds associations with some of the country’s most sought-after contemporary artists, among them Helen Sebidi, Penny Siopis, Wim Botha, Berni Searle, Sydney Kumalo and Alexis Preller. Beyond exciting (and sometimes controversial) local artists, Stevenson brings international artists to South Africa, and participates in world-class art events such as Frieze London, Paris Photo, Frieze New York, and Art Basel Miami Beach, giving South Africans a boost into the international scene. It’s an uncompromising gallery, the kind that’s unafraid to show ideas that may offend or displease – whatever your reaction, you’ll certainly be made to think.
Virgin Atlantic operates a daily flight to Johannesburg from London Heathrow. Book your flight today and visit some of these incredible local art galleries.
Written by Keith Bain