A new cultural landscape

To describe Johannesburg as a melting pot of different cultures would not be too inaccurate a statement to make. One may even go as far as to call it a cosmopolitan city or even “a symbol par excellence of the African modern” as posited in Achille Mbembe and Sarah Natull’s collaborative work, Johannesburg: The Elusive City. Elusive indeed, when one considers how imbued it is with a multitude of sights and sounds and an energy all too familiar to those who inhabit its contradictory yet sinuous urban spaces.

In a city such as Johannesburg, the presence of the various effects of its past can be seen everywhere. It is here that the claims behind city’s rejuvenation never quite make sense. These claims of infusing a cultural lifestyle into the city, events that encourage people to “take back the city”, smack of naivety in many instances, and somehow suggest that there is a lack of culture, or that the city has unwittingly found itself in the hands of a not-so-agreeable group of people.

But Johannesburg is neither defined by its spaces nor the seemingly conflicting yet subtle aesthetics within them. It is, most importantly, a city with a long and difficult story to tell, despite its relatively short lifespan in comparison to other cities like Paris, London and New York.

The Wits Art Museum is the latest addition to the layered cultural landscape of Johannesburg. A project of many years in the making, WAM (as the museum will undoubtedly come to be known) finally comes to life in a few weeks and will arguably currently-trendy Braamfontein, with an enduring authenticity.

Boasting over 9 000 artworks in its collection, from African art pieces to modern and contemporary South African art, the museum will be a welcome venue of art and cultural exposition. The launch also marks the opening of the museum’s first exhibition, WAM! Seeing Stars, where audiences will get a glimpse of some of its more valued pieces from the collection.

Located on corner Bertha and Jorissen Street, the museum marks the apex of the Wits University school of art and provides a portal through which the elitist university itself finds a link to the rest of the city.

Inside, the museum features architectural cues reminiscent of Bauhaus and Brutalism. It is made transparent to the outside streets by the glass walls and doors on the bottom floor, enough to afford the usual passer-by a snippet of the inside.

The museum has fortunately been situated in such a way that attracting traffic through its doors should not be as difficult a task as say, what the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) might experience. Though this sounds cavalier, it is proving to be a crucial point in the sustenance of our cultural and heritage institutions. Many find themselves abandoned and semi-functional, unable to rise to their full potential as avenues for informative but leisurely practice. Very often one wonders if government truly understands the immense quality and scope that is had in these institutions, not simply as sights to be ticked off the tourist’s list of places to see but the structures that house the collective cultural history of a people.

WAM joins a luminary list of cultural landmarks within the city of Johannesburg on the cusp of the cultural arc that joins Newtown and Braamfontein through Nelson Mandela Bridge. Along with other spaces like Museum Africa, Constitution Hill and JAG the museum will hopefully promote a vision of Johannesburg that is beyond the usual stereotype. More importantly it should be a vision that will encourage people to learn the different layers that make up this city and not simply the trendy hang-out spots.

For now however, one may look forward to a lengthy and equally exciting schedule of things to see on the weekend once the museum opens its doors.

WAM officially opens on May 19.

Mpho Moshe Matheolane
Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry.

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