الرئيسية Thesis Eleven Writing JohannesburgAsmalZahiraTrangoGuyš (eds) Movement Johannesburg (City Agency, Johannesburg,...
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Review essay Writing Johannesburg Thesis Eleven 2017, Vol. 141(1) 115–122 ª The Author(s) 2017 Reprints and permissions: sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/0725513617720314 journals.sagepub.com/home/the Zahira Asmal and Guy Trangoš (eds) Movement Johannesburg (City Agency, Johannesburg, 2015) Nele Dechmann, Fabian Jaggi, Katrin Murbach and Nicola Ruffo (eds) with photographs by Mpho Mokgadi Up Up: Stories of Johannesburg’s Highrises (Fourthwall, Johannesburg, 2016) Nechama Brodie The Joburg Book: A Guide to the City’s History, People and Places (Pan Macmillan, Johannesburg, 2014 ) Terry Kurgan Hotel Yeoville (Fourthwall, Johannesburg, 2013) Reviewed by: Naomi Roux, University of Cape Town, South Africa What does it mean to try to capture the essence of a city, and to convey that capturing to an audience? In the recent film Vaya (2016, directed by Akin Omotoso), a semifictionalized account of three characters’ journeys to Johannesburg, the City of Gold, looms as a figure both monstrous and breathtaking. Dramatic drone footage sweeps over the storm-ridden skyline while destitute city-dwellers pick scrap off a rubbish heap. Claustrophobic shots of cramped interiors and alleyways reflect the characters’ growing alienation and dislocation. The film charts a familiar storyline that can be traced back to films like Jim Comes to Jo’burg (1949) and Cry, the Beloved Country (1951). It owes a debt to these and many other such urban narratives in which the city is seen as a space to which those who migrate either emerge broken and drained, or become irrevocably swept up in its currents of chaos, danger and corruption. The classic portrayal of Johannesburg is as a place to be either feared or survived: this is one of the city’s many self-perpetuating mythologies. However, the city’s multiple, tangled micro-stories are also far more complex than this, offering a web of histories that are constantly rewritten and reinvented. Memory accrues and sediments in odd corners, while around them, the cit; y exuberantly erases and rebuilds itself. Many contemporary texts on Johannesburg point to this sense of the city as both deeply historicized and a perpetual blank slate that promises constant self-reinvention – and has done so since its beginnings as an abrasive, swaggering 19th-century gold rush town. An abundance of popular, academic, fictional and historical writing on Johannesburg has appeared in the last decade or so, exploring the different faces of the city, many of 116 Thesis Eleven 141(1) them complicating the view of Johannesburg as either the site of ruin or the site of radical self-reinvention. These prolific engagements with Johannesburg prompt the question of how one might collectively read this explosion of ‘city’ texts. Is there any kind of common intellectual or creative project at work here? What is it about Johannesburg, in particular, that prompts such an outpouring of analyses and representations? What does it mean to, borrowing Lindsay Bremner’s (2010) phrase, ‘write the city into being’? Or is it the city that writes us into being, acting as a framework that both constrains and enables its inhabitants? Placing these texts next to each other produces the sense that pinning down Johannesburg is a bit like stalking a wild animal in a forest, trying out innumerable pathways, oblique and direct approaches, while the subject continually bounds out of reach or retreats into shadow. And arguably this impossibility of pinning it down completely, or of fully disentangling its multiplicities of meanings and experiences, explains why it remains such a popular and challenging subject. As a result, our imaginary Johannesburg bookshelf contains a huge variety of texts with a plethora of different styles and methodologies. Many of these come from an explicitly academic register, including the seminal Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis (Nuttall and Mbembe, 2008). Appearing as a special issue of the journal Public Culture in 2004, this was one of the first academic collections to grapple thoughtfully with precisely this contradictory quality of brazenness and elusiveness that characterizes Johannesburg. Similarly, Lindsay Bremner’s Writing the City into Being (2010), originally conceived of as a doctorate through publication, draws together the architect’s essays on culture, space and representation using Michel de Certeau’s notion of the walker as writer and the city as collective, unconsciously produced text. With a stronger focus on social science and empirical data, Changing Space, Changing City (Harrison et al., 2014) offers a hefty and wide-ranging collection of maps, essays, creative reflections and visualizations of Johannesburg as a city in transformation, closely associated with the work of the Gauteng City Region Observatory. Elsewhere on the stylistic spectrum is Holland and Roberts’ From Jo’burg to Jozi (2002), a loose collection of short reflections and individual readings of Johannesburg. To this we could add a number of quasi-fictional, quasi-autobiographical texts that reflect on the authors’ personal experiences of Johannesburg, and the entanglement of individual lives with the city: for example, Ivan Vladislavić’s Portrait with Keys (2006), and more recently Mark Gevisser’s Lost and Found in Johannesburg (2014). The city has also inspired vast amounts of fiction, with the inner-city suburb of Hillbrow on its own acting as the setting for Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow (2001), Ivan Vladislavić’s The Restless Supermarket (2001), Kgebetle Moele’s Room 207 (2006), and Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City (2010). Meanwhile, Mongane Wally Serote’s images of the city’s ‘thick iron breath’ and ‘neon flowers’ remain as evocative now as they were in the 1970s when he wrote the poem City Johannesburg. Four new books published between 2013 and 2016 illustrate some of the variety of recent additions to texts on Johannesburg: Movement Johannesburg, Up Up: Stories of Johannesburg’s Highrises, The Joburg Book, and Hotel Yeoville. Each of these offers a different approach to reading and representing Johannesburg: collectively, these four texts make visible the ways in which any representation of the city is necessarily going to Roux 117 be incomplete, as well as the powerful extent to which micro-histories and small, personal narratives can illuminate the city’s pasts and sense of place. Movement Johannesburg is an edited collection of essays by academics, architects, urbanists, artists, and others, exploring Johannesburg through the metaphor of ‘movement’. As editor Zahira Asmal writes, the city literally ‘crashed’ into existence, and has remained a place that draws new arrivals, migrants, and seekers of fortune throughout its existence. The book’s lens of movement allows for exploration from a number of vantage points, ranging from Guy Trangoš’ exploration of the geological processes that shaped Johannesburg’s landscape and mineral riches to Melinda Silverman’s poignant discussion of the barriers to movement thrown up by apartheid planning and the problems of overcoming this spatial fixity. Movement is read both literally, as movement through space, physical and psychological navigation, or patterns of migrancy and spatial re-imagining; and figuratively, as in the transcript of a discussion chaired by Molemo Moiloa on the creation of moving publics via public space, or a conversation between the editors and Edwin Cameron, Pregs Govender and Jay Naidoo about the possibility of creating a more inclusive and equal city, as part of Johannesburg’s democratic movements. The movement metaphor is a useful way of capturing the ‘citiness’ of Johannesburg, and particularly the city’s dynamism and sense of changeability. While many of the chapters are written as academic essays, the book also makes use of alternative strategies such as conversations, artistic interventions, and photo essays. The book has two companion pieces that use the same conceptual frame: the book Movement Cape Town (2015) and Movement Durban (2014), described as a ‘poster-zine’. Thus, the idea of movement as a defining force in the city’s making is not presented as something intrinsic to Johannesburg, but rather as a lens for viewing cities and city life more generally, although Johannesburg is referred to as a city ‘defined by movement’. As a series of ‘city’ volumes, it may have been worthwhile to spend more time in the framing texts defining what ‘movement’ means in each particular space: does the concept of movement, or the idea of a city shaped by movements of people and ideas, play out differently in Johannesburg in comparison with Cape Town or Durban? What is it about South African cities that particularly invites discussion through this frame, and what do we understand about the particularities of Johannesburg through this reading? Up Up: Stories of Johannesburg’s Highrises (2016) also approaches the city’s histories and multiple geographies through a metaphor that serves as a common thread. In this case, the city is read through the high-rise buildings that make up the city’s iconic skyline. The collection is more than simply a set of histories of buildings: the buildings and their stories are used as starting-points to unfold Johannesburg’s many histories, and its contemporary rhythms and social structures. Each chapter deals with a different building, with an associated essay, photographs, plans or maps, and archival images. In many of the essays, the narratives connected to the building highlight the politics and poetics of everyday urban life far beyond a biography of the structure, rendering the building a point of departure for a much wider and deeper reflection. The chapter on the Civic Centre, for example, features a conversation between activist Jabu Pereira and Nele Dechmann, one of the editors. Towards the end of the interview, Pereira speaks about the Johannesburg Civic Centre as the site of an intervention at the 2015 Joburg 118 Thesis Eleven 141(1) Pride march, but the bulk of the conversation focuses on the risk associated with being an openly LGBTI person in South Africa. The Civic Centre serves as an anchor for a powerful discussion of the ways in which public space can be a space of surveillance or danger, but may also offer room for the reclamation of power and visibility. In a similar vein, the chapter on the Medical Arts Building in Jeppe Street features a conversation between Johannesburg artist Dorothee Kreutzfeld and Bedilu (a pseudonym), an Ethiopian business owner who works in the building. The Medical Arts Building, like others in its immediate vicinity, was originally built to house medical suites. Today, this section of the city is home to thriving Ethiopian and Somali businesses, and the doctors’ offices and waiting rooms in these highrises have been transformed into labyrinthine vertical shopping malls. Bedilu’s account deals only with the history of the building from the late 1990s, when the buildings were abandoned by their previous tenants and underwent the transformation into the bustling metropolitan business spaces they are today. This is just one example of moments in the text where the high-rises in question are read through their contemporary use and meaning, with their histories and the stories of those who occupied them in the past being relegated to secondary importance. The overall sense created by this approach is very much of the city in the present: there is space for nostalgia, certainly, but the dynamism and contemporary tensions of Johannesburg are at the forefront throughout. Yet, many of the reflections in Up Up are tinged with personal experience and memory. Tanya Zack, for example, offers a poetic reflection of the rhythms of everyday life in the area around the art deco Anstey’s building. Zack approaches history as a series of fragments, imagining the contemporary city being observed by the brass monkeys that have stood sentinel in the building since the 1930s. Thus, although the book is anchored by descriptions of the city’s high-rise buildings, and each chapter includes drawings, photographs and some historical information about the buildings in question, the buildings themselves are not really at the book’s core. Rather, they serve as anchors for the small and large narratives that make up the ephemeral sense of what Johannesburg is and what it has meant in different times to different people. At the same time, Up Up for the most part avoids the gentle nostalgia that often seeps into popular writing about Johannesburg. The city may be a ‘melting pot’ and ‘the world’s largest urban forest’, and those of us who grew up or have made lives here may feel deep affection for its ‘wild West character’, but the truth of its lived realities is much more complex and ambiguous than these often-repeated truisms. This mode of semi-nostalgic, affectionate writing on Johannesburg is more apparent in Nechama Brodie’s The Joburg Book, first published in 2008 and currently in its second edition (2014). This is a well-designed and accessibly written guide to the city’s past and present. As does Movement Johannesburg, this book opens with a brief consideration of the area’s archaeology and geological formation, before travelling through its early origins as a gold-mining camp. The sections and chapters are organized according to the city’s broad geography, which tends to map onto its temporal development as well. The Joburg Book is a collage of essays, photographs, maps, archival material and even recipes (including, in the chapter on Lenasia, a recipe for ‘Biryani for 800 People’, borrowed from the 1961 book Indian Delights). Roux 119 The text includes several well-researched short essays written by urbanists and academics, but it also functions as an unusual travel guide, including web links and opening hours to particular attractions and landmarks. In one sense, this leads at times to a slightly too overt reading of the city as an ‘exhibit of itself’ aimed at a tourist audience, showing only the faces of itself that can be readily packaged for this kind of consumption. However, this approach makes it an accessible guide and introduction to the many histories of the city and the places where these histories might be encountered in the present, often told through compelling stories. For example, the section on the early history of the gold reef includes a swashbuckling short narrative on Nongoloza, the 19th-century bandit credited with founding what is now the 28’s prison gang. The Joburg Book offers glimpses into lesser-known areas and histories of the city, such as the section on Fietas and Vrededorp – a narrative often overshadowed in South African urban historiography by the more famous stories of Sophiatown or District Six, but which reflects the experiences of many neighbourhoods, towns and communities beyond these. The micro-histories of neighbourhoods lead into a larger narrative of the city’s development, from its gold-mining ‘wild West’ founding to spatial segregation under colonial and apartheid states, and the development of newer parts of the city such as Sandton and the northern suburbs. The updated edition includes brief references to, for example, the xenophobic violence that broke out in Johannesburg in 2008, but to some extent glosses over these darker narratives that continue to play out repeatedly, sustained by urban inequality and desperation: the book’s overwhelming mood is of an affectionate optimism for the ragtag ensemble of colourful spaces, stories and people that make up Johannesburg. Terry Kurgan’s Hotel Yeoville (2013) is, of these four texts, the one that most explicitly makes use of the notion of the micro-history as a means of accessing experiences and narratives of urban life. The book is a record of the Hotel Yeoville public art and online project from 2008 to 2011, which began as a participatory website and led to an interactive installation in the Yeoville Library through which users could generate and upload content for the website: personal histories, photographs, handwritten messages, and maps. Hotel Yeoville was a project that, as Kurgan writes, played with ideas of what constitutes ‘public space’ in the contemporary city, especially a place like Yeoville which has historically been a space of migration and arrival. Like its forerunner, Kurgan’s Joubert Park Project (2001), Hotel Yeoville explores notions of participation, authorship, and self-representation. The book is the third part of the project, following the website and installation, and is designed to reflect the messy processes of writing, building, designing, and making. One document, for example, includes the track changes and comments made by its authors, Kurgan and Zen Marie, making visible the processes of editing and revision. The book is richly illustrated with photographs of the exhibition and participants’ contributions, as well as drawings, drafts, and rough sketches of exhibition designs and web page layouts. It is clear that the process of making Hotel Yeoville – with all of the obstacles and happy accidents that are inherent in a public-facing, collaborative effort like this – was far more intrinsic to the work than its final products (if, indeed, a work like this, which continues to live as a website, can ever really be said to be ‘final’). 120 Thesis Eleven 141(1) Kurgan describes Hotel Yeoville’s aesthetic, more than once, as ‘warm and pink’. The project is playful and welcoming, and the bright pink colour and playful design of the exhibition space features throughout the palette of the book and the current incarnation of the website. Yet, as Kurgan notes, this is not intended to reflect a ‘lightness’ of content or a lack of seriousness. Rather, she describes the aim of the project (of which the book constitutes one part) as the production of ‘a “social map” of a large and invisible “community” going about their everyday lives in the city of Johannesburg’ (p. 191). This social map, for Kurgan and her collaborators, is made up of the personal: the private moments, recollections and stories that collectively constitute a sense of place and of a particular time. The ‘map’ so produced is one that is far more textured and allows for more multiplicity and agency than is enabled through the mediatized images (of violence, displacement, and dehumanization) more commonly associated with migration or with neighbourhoods such as Yeoville, especially during the period the Hotel Yeoville project was underway. Kurgan’s use of the word ‘community’ in the text is worth unpacking. As a collaborative project, Hotel Yeoville drew in a number of partners (designers, architects, programmers and researchers), and literally could not have existed without the exuberant and willing participation of Yeoville residents. Hotel Yeoville brings to the forefront questions of what constitutes a ‘community’ when so many people in that community come from elsewhere; and what kinds of ‘publics’ we envision when we talk about public art or public space. In the end, the community both fractures into individual experiences and personalities while those fragments simultaneously coalesce to create the ‘community’ or the ‘public’. Hotel Yeoville offers a strong sense of spatial and social identity of Yeoville, but also manages to make it clear that this identity, this public, is made up of thousands of individual strands. It is both fragmented and cohesive, and the place both constitutes this particular ‘public’ and is constituted by these micro-moments and narratives. In this regard, it can be read alongside other ‘neighbourhood’ texts that explore the ways in which Johannesburg’s pasts have unfolded in particular places among those who live there, including Prince Massingham’s Kliptown Stories (2008) and Karie Morgan and David Thelen’s Experiencing Sophiatown. All four of the books under review here are attempts to ‘package’ the city in a particular way, alongside the plethora of recent ‘city’ books dealing with Johannesburg’s histories, cultures and representations. These range from the celebratory, playful tone of The Joburg Book to the somewhat more academic register of Movement Johannesburg. Up Up and Hotel Yeoville take different but compelling approaches to the dissonant histories that reverberate in the city’s spaces, and the intertwining of public space with spaces of creativity and the minutiae of everyday practice. Looking at these texts collectively, it is worth giving some thought to the various ways in which South African cities more generally and Johannesburg in particular have been represented or packaged. The common thread among these four texts is the idea that in order to access the city’s character, and the particularities that differentiate it from other cities in the country, the continent or indeed the world, one needs to turn to its micro-narratives: the neighbourhood, the building, the historical figure, the cuisine, the street, the artwork, the conversation. The larger reality of the city is composed of a million tiny experiences and memories. As a result, the paradox that becomes apparent when reading these and other Roux 121 Johannesburg texts collectively is that in order to capture or to read the larger reality, one must concentrate more and more closely on these pinpoints and temporal moments. What these microhistories and multiple approaches make strikingly apparent is the importance of the everyday, and the ephemeral practices that construct the texture and the lived realities of city life. The physical structures of the city and these everyday practices – patterns, actions, and rhythms – mutually constitute each other. The narratives associated with public space, ordinary buildings, office blocks or residences shape the meaning of the city’s spaces, while the city’s physical structure provides the frame for those experiences. The four texts under review, and the abundance of other recent work on Johannesburg, both make these micro-histories visible, and reveal the extent to which their multiple realities can never really be satisfactorily or completely captured. In this sense, understanding Johannesburg becomes like examining an endless fractal: one can focus inwards or outwards, and one can become intimately familiar with certain patterns while others will remain oblique, always just out of reach. Arguably, this is ultimately what defines the particular fascination that Johannesburg holds: it calls to writers and artists to try to capture it, while its state of constant reinvention and its sedimented, multiple meanings resist the possibility of ever being pinned down on the page completely. Declaration of Conflicting Interests The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article. Funding The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article. References Asmal Z and Trangoš G (eds) (2015) Movement Johannesburg. Cape Town and Johannesburg: The City Agency. Beukes L (2010) Zoo City. Johannesburg: Jacana Media. Bremner L (2010) Writing the City into Being: Essays on Johannesburg, 1998–2008. Johannesburg: Fourthwall. Brodie N (2014 ) The Joburg Book: A Guide to the City’s History, People and Places. Johannesburg: Pan Macmillan. Dechmann N, Jaggi F, Murbach K and Ruffo N (eds) (2016) Up Up: Stories of Johannesburg’s Highrises. Johannesburg: Fourthwall. Gevisser M (2014) Lost and Found in Johannesburg. Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball. Harrison P, Todes A, Gotz G and Wray C (eds) (2014) Changing Space, Changing City: Johannesburg After Apartheid. Johannesburg: Wits University Press. Holland H and Roberts A (eds) (2002) From Jo’burg to Jozi: Stories About Africa’s Infamous City. Johannesburg: Penguin Books. Kurgan T (2013) Hotel Yeoville. Johannesburg: Fourthwall. Massingham P and Charles C (2008) Kliptown Stories. Johannesburg: Chameleon. Moele K (2006) Room 207. Cape Town: Kwela Books. 122 Thesis Eleven 141(1) Morgan K and Thelen D (2013) Experiencing Sophiatown: Conversations Among Residents about the Past, Present and Future of a Community. Johannesburg: Fanele. Mphe P (2001) Welcome to Our Hillbrow. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press. Nuttall S and Mbembe A (eds) (2008) Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis. Durham: Duke University Press. Serote WM (1972) City Johannesburg. In: Yakhal’inkomo. Johannesburg: Ravan Press. Vladislavić I (2006) Portrait with Keys: Joburg and What-What. Cape Town: Umuzi. Vladislavić I (2001) The Restless Supermarket. Cape Town: David Phillip. Author biography Naomi Roux is an urbanist and visual historian with an interest in the relationships between memory, public space, and urban transformation, currently based at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. Her PhD thesis (Birkbeck, 2015) focused on the politics of collective memory in the context of the changing postapartheid city, using Nelson Mandela Bay in South Africa’s Eastern Cape as a case study. She has completed a fellowship in Cities and Humanities based at LSE Cities at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has worked as a researcher at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies (CUBES) in Wits University’s School of Architecture and Planning, and as a lecturer in the Wits School of Arts. She holds an MA in Heritage Studies (Witwatersrand, 2009) and a Bachelor of Fine Art (Rhodes, 2007).