Open Studios Joburg: Art for inner-city explorers

In the past few decades the Johannesburg inner city, like many urban centres worldwide, has become home to painters, photographers, printers and their imaginative brethren. In the surrounding buildings, behind walls and in sun-dappled studios, there’s a corresponding energy as artists create magic like modern-day alchemists.

The inner city’s large lofts and converted industrial spaces are a natural fit for the creative process. 

Even William Kentridge, the greatest of the contemporary South African art world, has his studio and interdisciplinary incubator space, The Centre for the Less Good Idea, in Maboneng on the edge of the city centre. 

Usually opportunities to visit working studios are few — or perhaps for a suburban dweller unsure of how to navigate the busy city, a little daunting. But thanks to Open Studios Joburg, these spaces have become more accessible. 

Studio mix

On 28 and 29 May, a weekend-long arts festival will highlight seven “art buildings” and open the doors to the studios of close to 100 working artists (two spaces in Brixton, Lapa at Breezeblock and Shade, joined as a partner venue).

The buildings involved in Open Studios Joburg run from the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios and Lapa at Breezeblock on the western side of the city to August House, Ellis House, the Living Artists Emporium, Transwerke Studios and Victoria Yards in the east and north. Visitors will have the chance to meet artists, explore their studios and enjoy exhibitions, walkabouts and performances. There will also be safe parking and a shuttle service running to move the keen culture vulture from building to building.

Lapa at Breezeblock in Brixton, Johannesburg, is where the Goethe-Institut hosts artists.
Photos: Paul Botes

Sara Hallatt is the brain behind the event. She’s also director of the Meta Foundation, an organisation that focuses on August House’s programmes, visual artist development and support. Hallatt was the director of the Bag Factory for seven years, so she knows the Jozi art scene better than most.

“Open Studios provides an honest and uncomplicated way for people to better understand the visual arts, with less opportunity to feel intimidated,” she says. “These are laid-back working spaces that are very friendly for people to visit.” 

Although there is little doubt that inner city degeneration is a largely negative phenomenon, the flight of big business and an evolving city have at the same time created opportunities for artists. 

“All over the world, artists occupy the spaces that are ‘forgotten’ about. They are typically early adopters, not afraid of innovation or development. For this reason, they often are brought in to gentrify an area. And then as spaces become more expensive, they are ironically often pushed out,” says Hallatt. 

She adds that the studio buildings represented in the upcoming event have a history in the city. They’ve done important work in helping the artists in their buildings market and develop their practice. 

And although all these artistic hives have welcomed guests at one point or another for exhibitions and events, Open Studios Joburg is an exercise in how working together to promote the network of artists in the city centre will be beneficial for everyone. 

“Through the trials and tribulations of Covid, we have found that to work together is substantially more beneficial than trying to go it alone. We also believe that the event provides a unique experience that is not provided by an art fair or a gallery opening because guests are able to meet the artist in their ‘natural habitat’,” says Hallatt. 

August and more

For nearly two decades August House has been a focal point for Joburg’s art community. This nondescript five-storey yellow brick building in Doornfontein houses more than 50 independent artists’ studios. Sam Nhlengethwa works from August House and notable past tenants include Lawrence Lemaoana, Mary Sibande and Nicholas Hlobo.

Creative spaces: August House, previously a factory built in the 1940 in Doornfontein is now known as the artist’s playground. Photos: Paul Botes

Artist and printmaker Michele Rolstone, who lives and works in the building, says there are numerous reasons she is city-based. “There aren’t many places that offer the same space and community like August House does. The city is alive in a way that the suburbs just aren’t (sorry suburbia), and I think I am alive in a different way since being here.” 

“I feel more aware and connected, in the best and worst possible ways. I came to Joburg looking for change, to grow both as an artist and a human. The city has certainly provided that in ways I could never have predicted.”

Although born in Cape Town, visual artist and August House tenant Vivien Kohler also chooses to work from the city centre because “it’s a melting pot of various peoples from a multitude of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. This cosmopolitan cross section is a microcosm of South Africa’s sociopolitical and socioeconomic landscape and affords me and other artists the opportunity to gain ideas and understanding from the ground up.” 

Unlike a gallery or museum, where audiences simply view a completed artwork, Open Studios Joburg will lift the veil on the various stages of the creative process. As Kohler notes, “You’ll get to see finished works, unfinished works, works in its initial sketched stages. You’ll get to see the artist’s studio and the various materials they use, which makes their works unique.” 

The must-see list 

The two-day programme is jam-packed, but here are some highlights to look out for.

The Bag Factory Artists’ Studios is a nonprofit visual arts organisation in Fordsburg. Over its three-decade history, the space has housed the studios and workshops of Jozi legends such as Kagiso Patrick Mautloa and David Koloane. On Saturday, 28 May, Joburg Experiences II, a pop-up salon-style exhibition made up of pieces from the studio’s extensive collection, will be on view. This is a must-see if you missed their knock-out retrospective The Bag Factory 30 Years: So Far, the Future at the Fada Gallery last year.

The Transwerke Studio opened in 2018. Located in Hillbrow and part of the Constitution Hill Precinct, this striking art deco building was designed by renowned architect Gordon Leith. Over its history, the building has been a maternity hospital and residence for midwives. This grand dame has found a new purpose as a hub for artists, designers and other creatives. On 28 May, several of the studios in the building will be open, and there will also be a live poetry session.

Transwerke Studios, near Constitution Hill in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, was a maternity hospital. In 2018 it was converted into a hub for artists and designers.
Photos: Paul Botes

If you need a refreshment break on 28 May, Charlie and Gerald’s Town Treasure, located just behind Gandhi Square, is the ideal pitstop. Set in a historic bank vault, this quirky stop will be offering drinks and food throughout the day. 

With more that 50 artists working from the building, exploring August House should keep you busy. On top of their open studios, two curated exhibitions and a walkabout on 29 May, Buka Arts Academy will host a children’s art area where you and the little members of the family can get hands-on.

Creative spaces: August House, previously a factory built in the 1940 in Doornfontein (top) is now known as the artist’s playground. Photos: Paul Botes

Join artist Hannelie Coetzee for a walkabout at Victoria Yards on Sunday, 29 May. She will lead an exploration of her newest sculpture and eco-artwork, The Praying Mantis. It’s a three-metre steel and wood artwork that will act as an insect hotel.

Victoria yards

Open Studios Joburg is on 28 and 29 May, when selected studios will be open. A free shuttle service will transport visitors safely every 15 minutes. Book your free ticket on Quicket and see open for programme updates

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Jo Buitendach
Journalist Jo Buitendach is a Joburg Inner City specialist. She writes about design, art, trends, pop culture and heritage.

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