Issue 141, August 2017

Performative Jozi

Guest Editors: Noëleen Murray and Peter Vale


Johannesburg: Colonial anchor, African performer – Peter Vale, Noëleen Murray

This journal article reflects on the conceptualization of a three-day meeting convened to open space for thinking differently about the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, and to begin to explore the possibility of working beyond the constraints of standard urban studies and regimes of spatial planning through which the city is conventionally viewed and researched. The incentive underpinning the 2015 Performative Urbanisms workshop was the desire to find areas of correspondence and overlap in the often widely separated realms of scholarly research and grassroots urban activism. To this end, a group of international and Johannesburg-based academics, writers, artists, analysts, and activists came together to explore a range of themes around the city and its visual, spatial, textual, and especially performative, representations, in the context of its functioning as a global city in comparative perspective. As the contents of this Special Issue show, the workshop provided space to consider diverse research methodologies, creative writings, and artistic strategies aimed at moving beyond formulaic constructs of Johannesburg, and instead to offer an accounting of its novelties, complexities, and originalities.

Melancholy mapping: A ‘dispatcher’s eye’ and the locations of loss in Johannesburg – Ed Charlton

Johannesburg has been described variously as an elusive, genre-less, blank, even self-cannibalizing city. Without refusing such rhetorical play, this article seeks to secure a mode of urban analysis that attends to the city’s material losses as well as its conceptual elisions. In so doing, it engages the critical potential, in particular, of melancholy, establishing through this concept not just an affective condition or a psycho-spatial categorization, but a way of mapping the city. Through analysis of Mark Gevisser’s Lost and Found in Johannesburg (2014), this article follows his self-styled ‘dispatcher’s eye’ in its efforts to navigate those spaces in the city otherwise erased from the city’s self-image. In particular, it finds important precedence in Ranjana Khanna’s notion of a ‘postcolonial melancholia’, as well as interventions by Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, as it elaborates upon the imaginative as well as political claims made available by such a melancholy mapping of Johannesburg.

Woza! Sweetheart! On braiding epistemologies on Bree Street – Mpho Matsipa

African hair braiding on Bree Street offers a glimpse into how immigration, black female sexuality and shifts in urban retail economies provide important economic and cultural resources to urban residents and users. As both ontology and epistemology, black hair braiding practices recalibrate local economies, spaces, and aesthetic codes, and thus co-constitute emergent urban identities and a way of knowing the city. The intimate, networked, and fractal nature of black hair braiding spaces disrupts the rigid colonial spatial orders of the city and its architecture. As an epistemology, braiding disrupts the grand narrative of Johannesburg in ‘crisis’, while also disrupting the colonizing and gendered structure of urban studies itself.

Babel Re-Play – Cynthia Kros, Georges Pfruender

This article discusses the first phase of Babel Re-Play, a collaborative project by academics and artists in South Africa and Switzerland applying principles of art as research and play theory. The interest of the participants, inspired by the larger research initiative Construction Site/Chantier, is in deepening our understandings of the ways modernity is playing out in contemporary cities. The article shows how re-playing the well-known myth of Babel recorded in Genesis in the Old Testament, which has been explored and re-shaped by countless artists, philosophers, and scholars over the ages, affords new readings and new knowledge of the city. A South African team and a Swiss team each produced a short film, serving to sample aspects of the contemporary city led by interpretations of myths associated with Babel.

Acropolis now: Ponte City as ‘portrait of a city’ – Svea Josephy

Ponte City is a project by Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse that uses photographs, architectural diagrams, text, interviews, fiction, found objects, oral history, and archival material to critically explore a particular urban landscape in Johannesburg. The exhibition and book, which comprise this project, manifest in different ways, but both work together to cut across disciplines and incorporate the languages of fine art, photography, architecture, urban planning, history, economics, popular culture, and literature. The publication comprises a book of photographs and pamphlets in which the artists have collaborated with former and current residents, gathered personal stories, delved into the archive, invited authors to contribute essays on a variety of topics, and worked with material found at the site. This article examines the notion of a ‘portrait of a city’ in relation to the Ponte City project, and asks the questions: What is a portrait of a city? Is it possible to take a ‘portrait of a city’, and what techniques are used when a photographer portrays places and people, or attempts to take, or make, a ‘portrait’ – of a city, a place or even a building such as Ponte? Can a building come to stand in for a city? And how have these strategies been put into play by Subotzky and Waterhouse in the Ponte City project?

Wrapping Johannesburg: A boxing story – Christine Dixie, James Sey

This paper takes the form of a ‘performative’ dialogue, a recounting of scenes, which alternate, in the mode of a cinematic montage, with academic analysis of the interfaces between boxing, art, and space. In his book Body and Soul: Notebooks on an Apprentice Boxer (2004), sociologist Loïc Wacquant mixes three genres: analytic sociology, depictive ethnography, and short story. He argues that he used this unorthodox methodology ‘to make the reader simultaneously feel and understand how boxers are “gripped” by their craft and viscerally tied to it’. Similarly, in this paper, the overlapping voices of its two authors engage in both performative, creative and intellectual ways with the critiques and social rituals surrounding boxing, ultimately finding that an understanding of boxing as an epistemological encounter gives rise to interesting ways to think through the relationships between art and urban space itself. The paper ranges widely over each author’s personal experience of boxing, analyses of specific artworks both ancient and modern, and an analysis of the psychogeography of urban space, and in particular, Johannesburg. The form of the paper, as it incorporates narrative experience (embodiment) and analytic mode, can be seen as a text that re-enacts the ‘performance’ of boxing and art-making in which the traditional opposition between the two is integrated, if not suspended.

Satellite cities: Photographic essay – Svea Josephy

This photographic essay is about places that have the same names but are often worlds apart. Satellite Cities (2016) looks at the naming of settlements and suburbs primarily in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and their parallels in other parts of the world. It examines the possibility of relationships or connections between these disparate places, and their realities as sites of conflict and struggle, and of war, liberation, and reconciliation.

Friday 20th July 2012 – Yewande Omotoso

Writing Johannesburg – Naomi Roux

Book review: Changing Space, Changing City: Johannesburg after Apartheid – Siân Butcher


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