Slick visions of a vintage Jo’burg

Normandie Court (1938) was inspired by the great French ocean liner Normandie.

Normandie Court (1938) was inspired by the great French ocean liner Normandie.

Veteran French photographer Patrick de Mervelec’s new book, Johannesburg: Architecture and Heritage (In camera Art Publications), forms part of this foreigner’s quest to reveal his adopted city in a positive light to its own inhabitants. In his view a new story, based upon the old, needs to be told through the act of walking and looking.

In the introduction to the book architect Fanuel Motsepe writes about his sadness that the city’s “new black elite are not making significant investments in the city that has afforded them their wealth”. Politicians are equally shortsighted, he claims, and so it is down to a photographer to look beyond the state of ruin and to monumentalise what’s left of the city’s old buildings so that their importance may be fully realised.

“The portraits captured resonate with hope and a desire that the city will outlive its political and economic idiosyncrasies,” Motsepe writes.

 The motivation for the book lay in De Mervelec’s desire to illustrate the discussion about how the city’s central business district (CBD) can be used as a place of economic and cultural regeneration, but it can also be seen as an antidote to the bleakness people see in town and the pessimism they encounter.

It’s also quite strange how, by embracing downtown degeneration, a new set authenticates itself and becomes trendy.

A disturbing although visually magnificent artefact is Jo’burg, the 2005 book by famous South African photographer Guy Tillim, which was photographed primarily in dilapidated flats in Joubert Park. The images of lives lived in abject misery, in places you would not want to house an animal, have not deterred photographic enthusiasts from paying thousands for this out-of-print edition, published by STE Publishers.

This art collector’s vision of hell dovetails with the views of American academic Arthur J Murray, who specialises in a bleak analysis of Johannesburg’s ongoing quest to become a “world-class African city”. Murray tells us that there’s a contradiction between the need for good news to emerge from the city and the real levels of social exclusion that happen on the ground.

Socioeconomic inequalities
In his most recent book, City of Extremes (2011), Murray goes against the general air of trendy positivity about central Johannesburg. He writes that “the powerful spatial dynamics that have reshaped the greater Johannesburg metropolitan region after apartheid have not only reinforced existing socioeconomic inequalities and racial hierarchies inherited from the apartheid past but have [also] introduced new (and ostensibly colour-blind) patterns of social segregation, which have resulted in the further marginalisation of the largely black underclass.”

This is the bad news inner-city developers won’t wish to hear — those who have sought to cordon off sections of the city for the benefit of the trendy set, who have become tired of the predictability of suburban shopping malls.

Beyond the few inner-city gentrification developments lies a place of mystery and mayhem that is slowly being discovered by artistic interlopers intent on becoming part of the story of the city that grew too fast. Some are previous denizens of the inner city, now discovering it in its post-apartheid squalor, and others are newcomers ogling its odd proportions.

De Mervelec is one of the latter, although in his old age he is setting himself up as something of an activist.

In an informal email he told me that his new publication is “a call for the old CBD of Johannesburg to be recognised as the most important centre in terms of the economic history of the country. The battle for the complete renovation and revival of the old CBD — unlocking its immense potential to provide stability and create job opportunities, particularly in terms of the arts, tourism and small to medium entrepreneurships — has only just begun.

“The old CBD has a future — and its role needs to be redefined — as the historic and cultural centre of Gauteng,” he said.

“Dialogue is to be encouraged, between the arts community and the establishment; the greatest possible interface and interaction should be sought, between the old CBD and the more recent commercial districts on the outskirts.”

If you enjoy the Art Deco heritage of the city, and photographs of elegant old New York or Chicago, then De Mervelec’s Johannesburg will enthral. It has a vintage quality.

The book begins with a grainy vision of Mandela Bridge in the snow.

“In terms of photographic technique,” De Mervelec writes, “for Mandela Bridge in the snow, there is a deliberate tone, a reference back to early photographers, particularly Gustave le Gray. This extraordinary moment of the city in the snow heralds the beginnings of something new.”

Otherwise, De Mervelec says that “the images in the book are deliberately structured and stark — and are framed quite ruthlessly. This style would provide the best foil for the many different architectural styles that the city has witnessed through the eras.”

The buildings, and said eras, are described in detail by architectural historian Clive Chipkin, who has provided extended captions for De Mervelec’s Johannesburg. The captions are full of facts, admiration and regrets.

Hillbrow is gently described as having a “typically untidy urbanism, conspicuously lacking order, yet there is a magical quality at night — belying the dangers in the dark sanitary lanes between the buildings”.

 Johannesburg Station is “in a dreadful state”. And the eccentric but noble Barbican on Rissik Street is described as the “sole survivor of the demolition of the 1990s, of all the interesting buildings on the block”.

In places Chipkin views the buildings as some would view people — and time may have frozen in these pages, yet it’s more than just a snapshot of a time and a place.

The launch of Patrick de Mervelec’s Johannesburg will take place at David Krut Projects, 142 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, Johannesburg, on March 9 at 12pm. An exhibition will run until the end of March

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse


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