Egoli lights up the city of love

Works by Billie Zangewa, Johannes Segogela, Serge Alain Nitigeka and Willem Boschoff, and Jane Alexander’s Security/Segurança. (Supplied)

Works by Billie Zangewa, Johannes Segogela, Serge Alain Nitigeka and Willem Boschoff, and Jane Alexander’s Security/Segurança. (Supplied)

Last year, South Africa hosted the first French Season, a diverse programme of over 100 events aimed at showcasing contemporary Gallic culture locally. This year South Africa is returning the favour, taking local culture to France.

Among the various offerings –Gregory Maqoma, Robyn Orlin and Brett Bailey in Paris, the Boks versus France in November – the French capital is currently hosting My Joburg, a large group exhibition devoted to art from and about Johannesburg.

Despite its decisive importance as a place of cultural trade, Jo'burg has never been the subject of sustained exploration by exhibition-makers. Last year curator Joost Bosland, of Stevenson Gallery, dipped his toe in the water when he presented an engaging three-part series of exhibitions looking at the legacy of the second Johannesburg Bienale held in 1997.

For the most part, it has been architects and urban planners – not curators – who have tried to fathom and visually explain Jo'burg's idiosyncratic character. In 2007 the Tate Modern hosted Global Cities, which included Guy Tillim's striking essay on inner-city neglect and anxious domesticity.

According to Paula Aisemberg, director of La Maison Rouge, the private art foundation and museum that is hosting My Joburg, the decision to present the exhibition emerged out of a 2011 offer to participate in the France-South Africa Seasons. The offer neatly fitted with the museum's existing programming.

In 2011 La Maison Rouge – it is owned by Antoine de Galbert, heir to a supermarket chain and noted French art collector – presented a showcase of art from Winnipeg, the lonely financial and industrial city in middle Canada. In a sense, Jo'burg is similarly isolated in the French imagination.

Because of its colonial legacy in West Africa, explained Aisemberg, Parisian audiences tend to be more familiar with contemporary artists from the Senegalese capital of Dakar than from Jo'burg.

"A show about Dakar would be less of a discovery for the public than the Jo'burg art scene, which is not known here other than the work of great masters like David Goldblatt, William Kentridge, Santu Mofokeng and Tillim."

All four of these artists are included on My Joburg, which Aisemberg pieced together following a two-week trawl across Johannesburg that included visits to the Wits Art Museum and Johannesburg Art Gallery, as well as inner-city artist studios at the Bag Factory and August House.

Included in the line-up is a tableau of hand-painted sculpted figures depicting the national football team. The work is by veteran artist Johannes Segogela, a former electrician, welder and boilermaker who turned professional in the early 1980s.

Aside from group exhibition regulars like David Koloane and Willem Boshoff, younger artists are also well represented. They include this year's Standard Bank Young Artist for visual art, Mary Sibande, Kemang Wa Lehulere, joint winner of the 15th Baloise Art Prize at Art Basel in June, and the Burundi-born sculptor Serge Alain Nitegeka.

In 2003, after periods spent in Rwanda, Congo and Kenya, Nitigeka moved to Johannesburg, where he has forged a successful career translating his shattered early biography into material forms evoking loss and displacement. Typically he uses black in his paintings and sculptures.

"Black has the personality of a good listener, maybe even a philosopher," he has said.

Nitegeka's large-scale installations, which provoke active participation of the viewers, are particularly engaging. My Joburg includes a worthwhile example, while across town from Bastille, at the cavernous Palais de Tokyo museum, near the Trocadéro, Nitegeka is showing a far less resolved version of his eccentric memorials to forced migration.

Nitigeka was invited by Anthea Buys, formerly a curator at the National Gallery in Cape Town, and Mikhael Subotzky, the acclaimed documentary photographer, to appear on their small exhibition, This House, at Palais de Tokyo. The exhibition broadly engages the idea of structure as "a phenomenon that is both volumetric and conceptual" and includes ink drawings by Jo'burg artist Alexandra Makhlouf, twice winner of the prestigious Martienssen Prize at Wits.

So how does Jo'burg read in Paris? Nervously, if one commits to engaging Jane Alexander's caged anthropomorphic bird in her installation Security/Segurança (2006), which occupies an entire room at La Maison Rouge.

Nostalgically too, if you recall the Top Star drive-in, which features in Kentridge's film Other Faces (2011), as well as a fascinating pop-history installation created by Bettina Malcomess and Dorothee Kreutzfeldt. The installation, which showcases some of the ephemera illustrated in their impressionistic nonfiction book Not No Place, introduces My Joburg.

But Jo'burg is also a place of quiet and unhurried domesticity, a necessary story that has been exported to France in fine studies of everyday living environments produced by Market Photo Workshop photographers Akona Kenqu, Jerry Gaegane and Dahlia Maubane.

"The idea of choosing a city rather than a country is justified by the fact that the vast majority of artists – in South Africa as elsewhere – live and congregate in cities," said Aisemberg. "The urban landscape is their everyday environment, and therefore necessarily reflected in one way or another in their creations."

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