Welcome to August House, a relic of Doornfontein’s industrial past and home to some of South Africa’s top artists.
If August House could talk, oh what anecdotes it could tell. That's silly. Every building that’s been around for long enough has a story to tell – if you listen well enough. You can be certain that the walls of any edifice has witnessed some intrigue and that its doors have let in interesting characters.
August House is one of those spaces that, due to word of mouth, has become one of Jo’burg’s most valuable pieces of real estate. Not monetarily, mind you. Its worth and renown are measured by those who have inhabited it.
As a colleague put it, if you want to sabotage South Africa’s visual arts scene, drop a bomb on August House.
Since its establishment as an enclave for artists in 2006, some of its tenants – past and present – include artists Mary Sibande, Dineo Seshee Bopape and Lawrence Lemaoana.
Then there are Mbongeni Richman Buthelezi, Gordon Froud and Joseph Gaylard, Nontobeko Ntom-bela, Gabi Ngcobo, Gonçalo Mabunda, Jacki McInnes, Nelson Makamo, Bie Venter, Kudzanai Chiurai and Nicholas Hlobo. Musician Tshepang Ramoba and his stylist partner Honey Makwakwa have recently become part of this august community.
The brainchild of Venter – who is the director at Biecc, a company that provides logistical assistance in contemporary art and exhibitions – and business partner Maria Svane, the August House “project” came to life in 2006.
'Forward-thinking people living'
"I had been living in the inner city for a number of years at the time in leased industrial premises across the road from August House. Maria and I started discussing the possibility of buying a building in the city and converting it to large apartments or artists’ studios.
“The timing was perfect, with a shareholder in August House wanting to sell, and we went into partnership with the remaining shareholders.”
Venter, dubbed a "cultural entrepreneur", converted the two top floors of the building into very large apartments with the most basic amenities.
“The idea was to create a community of like-minded, creative, forward-thinking people living and working in an affordable, spacious, semi-industrial location,” she says.
Seven years later, this industrial building and its tenants have tended to stay on the tracks Venter laid out.
“The building has remained true to the original vision of creative people living and working together, even though I only work from there at present. The majority of tenants are still creative people.”
'The building growing up'
August House is a modernist, monumental, high-ceilinged edifice that squats at the corner of End and Moseley streets in Doornfontein, downtown Johannesburg. It has a black brick base, red brick façade and large airy windows with wide sills, which lend it a solid, if somewhat forbidding, countenance.
The house is a relic of the time when Doornfontein was the hub of manufacturing and the attendant warehousing that goes with it.
Part bohemia, part chic and part industrial, the building addresses the utilitarian logic of the time.
It’s perhaps that logic at work now as it enters its seventh year as an art commune. It somehow survived the hijacking that happened to many buildings in the area.
All of this has been witnessed by the building’s security officer, Power Mthethwa, who has lived at the building since 1981.
“It was beautiful,” he says, remembering how the neighbourhood was in the 1980s.
It’s fair to say that the building’s heyday is in the past, both literally and metaphorically.
Lemaoana refers to it as “the building growing up”. Its modernist visage, once an echo of moves in Europe to break out from the strictures of architectural convention, sits ill at ease with the urban scrubland that now surrounds it.
'A "cleaning" of the neighbourhood'
August House is in an area whose face has morphed over the decades. Looking at Doornfontein now, you wouldn’t believe it if you were told that it was Johannesburg’s first official residential suburb.
Over the decades it changed into a slum neighbourhood, before settling on its current self as a light industrial area. The factory shells in the area house activities as diverse as diamond cutting, mannequin manufacture, churches, carpentry, shops and flats.
“If August House was music, it would sound like avant-garde jazz. Think [American trumpeter] Lester Bowie. And, no, there would be no saxophone – that’s too smooth,” says Ramoba. He is a musician – drummer of popular group the BLK JKS, so musical analogies come naturally to him. He says this while seated in a tangle of instruments and cables in his August House loft.
Ramoba and his stylist girlfriend took over the loft from past tenant, curator and artist Ngcobo in January.
With its high ceilings and large windows, the space is suited to sonic escapades into unknown landscapes, something that has become synonymous with the BLK JKS.
Ramoba has practice sessions in the space. Looping, spatial cries of his voice over all-too familiar BLK JKS melodies fill the couple’s cavernous cave.
“The band and I practise here almost every day. Bie [Venter] complained about the noise at first … but then we met, and she totally got it. On days when we’re not practising, my neighbours sometimes ask me why things are so strangely quiet,” he laughs.
In the whirlwind of words Ramoba uses to explain the reason for his choice of location –“central”, “home”, “gritty”, “me” – he lets on that he would welcome a “cleaning” of the neighbourhood, similar to the Maboneng Precinct, which is visible from the loft.
Doornfontein is in his music
There is a post-apocalyptic building on the corner of End and Kerk streets – a basement parking lot that doubles as a rancid pond, breeding thousands of mosquitoes.
Its façade is broken, as though some glass-eating dragon repeatedly struck at it.
Nothing works in the edifice – there are broken lifts, no functional water pipes and no electricity.
In this slum shell, one imagines, all the fears and anxieties and nightmares of the city, of the future African city, of the future dystopian African city, are contained.
About the space, Ramoba said: “No one should live like that. Looking at it saddens me. Standing at the window, I’ve seen people get robbed in those flats. When I walk around Doornfontein, I don’t pass that building.”
The same sentiments are expressed by Ngcobo: “I like walking, which you can’t do there at night.”
At times the uneasy peace that descends on the neighbourhood is broken by tremulous cries from this building. It’s usually someone being mugged or a woman being beaten – or even worse.
Ramoba sucks up whatever inspiration he can get from the nightmarish structure and its environs.
“If I lived in the ’burbs I could never make the same music I make living here.”
He asserts that Doornfontein is in his music. It can be heard in the crashing of his drumsticks against the cymbals, or the haunting screams of his drawn-out vocals.
But there’s something more romantic about Ramoba’s rhythmic translation of his stomping yard than the precinct itself. More than just his residential and studio space, this is his muse.
It’s most probably served the same purpose for the many who resided in August House before Ramoba.
“When I feel like I’m unable to produce music, I sit on the outside staircase and look out on to the city. It releases any mental block I’m having.”
Like Ramoba, fellow August House resident and visual artist Makamo believes the space has lent his work a certain je ne sais quoi. Driving to meet him, I pass a child playing on the littered End Street and bustling Pritchard. It resembles a scene from the 31-year-old’s oil pastel sketches.
“I am a part of this community. My artwork tells a story of where I’m at. It includes the squatters in the neighbouring block of flats or the kids playing in dirt bins.”
Despite being bothered by the rundown block across the street, Ramoba is returning “home”.
“I moved into August House in 2010. I moved out in 2011, but kept it as my studio and am now moving back in,” he says over a cup of coffee in the gentrified pocket of town: Juta Precinct.
Photographs by Delwyn Verasamy
Pressure of living in August House
We meet here because his studio space is undergoing renovations. Contrasting the view from where we’re seated to that of his studio, I ask whether he would be happy to see Doornfontein this pristine.
“I can’t stop change from happening. It’s a part of life. People come and go.” This rather coming than going of people has not only come to define the nature of Johannesburg; Makamo also cites it as his reason for moving into the house.
While working on a solo exhibition based on migration, Makamo’s inspiration found solace in Doornfontein’s influx of South Africans and foreign nationals as well as his own move from his birthplace, Limpopo.
Fast forward three years later and Makamo, who recently became part of the Everard Read gallery family, plans to personalise the loft. Even in the inspirational house, Makamo’s characters don’t come easy.
“Living up to the legacy of the many who have lived at August House before me – Nicholas, Kudzi – is something that pushes me to want to make good work. There is definitely a certain pressure that comes from living in August House.”
The Centre for Historical Reenactments, an initiative by Ngcobo, Cape Town-born artist Kemang wa Lehulere and others, hosted its last exhibition on December 12 dubbed, appropriately, “We are absolutely ending this”.
They occupied the third floor of August House for about two years. Their brief could be summed up as “examining the intersection of art and historiography in the post-1994 cultural landscape. The centre has developed a series of process-based investigations, actions, presentations, conversations and events.” That’s from its press statement.
Over fast food from some American-style eatery on Pritchard Street, Ngcobo revels in the fact that August House managed to stay private, even though the people who lived there were public.
“It was great when we were there, but you could tell people were becoming comfortable about what we are about.”
So they committed “institutional suicide” and now the centre is something of a “spectral presence”.
It’s not clear whether the ghost of other galleries past haunt August House.
Glamorous after parties
The centre wasn’t the first gallery in the building. Before it, there was the Seippel Gallery, now in the rarefied ambience of the Maboneng district, and there was Art Logic, the company that organises the Joburg Art Fair. In 2008, Lemaoana held an exhibition in his flat.
In the past, when August House wasn’t hosting shows, it was the scene of glamorous after parties. In 2007, the postmortem of Africa Remix – the last big international show since the second Johannesburg Biennale of 1997 – was held at August House.
It’s not just the raucous; there is the solemn as well. Joseph and Noji Gaylard got married there – and Lemaoana’s space served as the kitchen.
The idea of community at August House is so expansive, so naive, you could say rural. Look hard and you won’t see it anywhere near a big city.
Ngcobo speaks of being comforted “knowing that Lawrence and Mary were next door”.
Bopape says: “It’s nice being in a building where everybody knows your name or where your neighbours can water your plants when you are away.”
Makwakwa says you can, literally, ask for sugar from your neighbour. “Dineo came the other night to ask how I am doing.”
Their new home is so different from the “pretentious” Main Street Life complex, where Makwakwa and Ramoba used to live.
“There it seemed everyone was trying to out-hipster the other,” says Makwakwa. She revels in being surrounded by real working artists.
“Everyone here is a working artist, and I feel my work is respected.”
The fate of August House
In Jo’burg, she says, it is easy to be swallowed into the maelstrom of exclusive parties and forget exactly what it is you are about.
Living in the city has personal meaning for Lemaoana. He lived in Soweto and, every day on Eloff Street, would catch a bus to Highlands North Boys’ High School on the other side of Johannesburg.
“The city wasn’t a place of settlement,” he says, invoking his teenage self and the state-sanctioned separation doctrine then in vogue.
“I like the rawness of the space. It’s not industrial chic. It doesn’t pretend to be what it is. It’s not sexy, cool like Arts on Main.”
In a neighbourhood still untouched by developers, what will be the fate of August House?
“We have no definite plans to change anything dramatically in the next few years,” says Venter. Her grand plan is simple: “Basic maintenance remains a priority and is effectively all that is possible to implement.”
One might say Venter’s hands are tied. What more can one do to an august house except to let it be?