I Art Joburg: The writing on the walls

If you go down to Doornfontein in Johannesburg today you are in for a big surprise. Look up along Sivewright Avenue as you travel north in the direction of Yeoville and there, hanging on the wall of an otherwise ordinary commercial face-brick block, is an elephant, a rhinoceros, a giraffe and other wild creatures.

They appear to be lying across the reinforced concrete beams, their limbs hanging limply, their eyes closed. Asleep or extinct – the artist has left it up to you to decide.

The remarkable work is by Belgian street artist ROA and is one of a new collection of large-scale murals that dot the eastern part of the city, spreading out from the Maboneng district.

It is part of the I Art Joburg project that launched this month with five artists – ROA, Steve "Espo" Powers from New York City, Remed from Madrid, Durban's Cameron Platter and the pioneer of South African graffiti culture, Falko, from Cape Town.

The brainchild of Cape Town-based curator Ricky Lee Gordon, the project started a year ago with I Art Woodstock and I Art Soweto. This year Jo'burg was chosen as the muse that would inspire city outsiders.

"Jo'burg's representative in this project is Jo'burg," Gordon said, when I asked about the choice of artists. They brought fresh perspectives and, because a large part of the project involved immersing themselves in the street life, they left as ­advocates.

For the love of Art. (Martha Cooper)

For many Jo'burg is the perfect canvas: a city reinventing itself that has a burgeoning street culture and no major hang-ups about regulations and bylaws. Plus it had "more hand-painted signs than I have seen anywhere", remarked Powers in a video interview. Gordon called it a "self-governing city", because different neighbourhoods had created their own sets of rules. An added attraction is the scale – "when you are working in places like Soweto or Woodstock you just don't have walls like this".

On display
The project is a collaboration between the artists and Adidas Originals with paint supplied by Plascon. As part of it, Adidas launched Area3, a multipurpose ­creative space in Maboneng that hosts the I Art Joburg exhibition, which includes installations by the artists and Falko's original photographs documenting the start of South Africa's graffiti culture in the Cape Flats suburbs of Mitchells Plain and Grassy Park – the counterculture of the 1980s. It also houses photographs taken by Martha Cooper, the doyenne of New York's street-art and graffiti culture, who collaborated with each artist and documented the process.

In a video interview Falko said he would not be where he was today "if it wasn't for Martha Cooper and Subway Art", her photographic catalogue of hip-hop, breakdancing, rap and graffiti culture that flourished in New York City during the 1970s and early 1980s. At 69 years old, Cooper was still "the super president", said Remed.

A piece that is part of the I Art Joburg project. (Martha Cooper)

Another of her latest projects focuses on cotrasting two districts, Soweto in Johannesburg and Sowebo (in southwest Baltimore), and some of this work is on display.

Cities like Jo'burg are plastered with advertising and commercial messaging, so it is a tricky act to bring the counterculture into the mainstream without compromising the authenticity of these artists' work. Gordon, who sold Adidas on the project, said the artists signed up knowing the brand was behind it.

For his part, "they spend so much money on marketing, why not on culture?" Plus, he added, Martha Cooper was photographing kids in Adidas sneakers on the streets of New York in 1979, although he admitted: "It's a balancing act."

Gordon is a believer in collaboration, something he calls a human truth. "Art reminds us of that," he said.

The city sites were chosen by Gordon the new-fashioned way. He spent a lot of time on Google Street View identifying suitable buildings and then contacting the landlords. Ten out of the 20 he called said yes after seeing the artists' previous work. Maboneng's Jonathan Leibmann offered three walls for the project.

The internet – with the rise of social media and photo apps such as Instagram ("If I don't photograph this, was I really here?") – has also been integral to building the culture of street art across cities globally, creating collaborations and inspiring ideas across what were once natural boundaries.

On the street, the works inspire curiosity, beckoning passers-by to take a closer look. It is an interesting phenomenon that, by creating new pathways through the city using street art, the city is challenged to offer safer passages. Powers, interviewed about ROA's work, said: "What I love about [it] … is that it makes sense wherever he puts it."

The I Art Joburg exhibition is on display at Area3, 20 Kruger Street, Maboneng precinct. Guided walks of the artworks are planned for October 13 and 20. For more information go to i-art-joburg.com

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