Braamfontein, an artist’s playground

After the Covid-19 lockdowns and in the middle of a bone-dry winter, Johannesburg is feeling dreary. So, stepping into a bustling Braamfontein is a jarring experience — in the best possible way. On an average weekday afternoon, the area is a mix of noise, colour and activity — artists busily paint murals high up on ladders, as workmen shout to each other, straining to be heard over hammering. 

This suburb on the northern edge of the inner city, is vibrant and energetic, in part because of its proximity to Wits University and a proliferation of student accommodation. But over and above that, Braamfontein is having a reawakening. Or, at least, the pulsating and colour-drenched four-block-radius around the 70 Juta precinct certainly is. 

This area was developed by property developer and owner of Play Braamfontein, Adam Levy, who spearheaded the revival of Braam more than a decade ago. He was responsible for the creation of the hip Juta Street quarterback in 2010, co-founded the much-loved Neighbourgoods market in 2014 and, more recently, its new iteration The Playground. 

It’s Play Braamfontein’s newest artistic endeavour, one of many that Levy and his team are careering ahead with. 

His company has always recognised the importance of creativity and art in the urban environment and has links and history with many of the city’s top creatives including Black Coffee, Kudzanai Chiurai and the Kalashnikov Gallery. 

 “Johannesburg is home to a depth and breadth of creativity that is impossible to ignore,” says Levy, “and we’ve made it our mission to put Braamfontein back on the map as the cultural heart of the city. There is no better way to rekindle the spirit of urban regeneration after a global pandemic than to bring together a landmark community market and a group of young artists whose voices should be heard.”

Partnering with Heineken, The Playground, put out a call for young and aspiring artists to win a chance to paint a two-storey wall as you enter the market. Ten artists were selected from more than 70 entries to first paint their own murals on 40m of panelling around the market. The public will vote (on Instagram) to help pick a winner based on these initial works. The chosen artists are Dbongz, Naledi Tshegofatso, Jakes Mbele, Nicholas Vries, Ras Silas Motse, Yolo Liso Xulu, Kaya Gwebu, Samurai Farai, Johnny Allison and Thabang Mojela.

The brief was to paint a panel that celebrates Braamfontein. And although this is a collaboration with an alcohol brand, you won’t find their branding emblazoning the artworks — this is a project about the art, not the booze. You might not realise what an important factor this is in a struggling inner city, where brands are king, and they regularly visually pollute areas with giant building wraps. It’s clear that these artworks are as much about the artists involved as they are about Braamfontein. 

Take for example the work by Yolo Liso Xulu. Inspired by street fashion, the artist and sneaker king’s aim was to paint something visually pleasing and colourful. He says his work didn’t need to have a deeper meaning. Rather, he believes in the importance of colour and the positive effect it has on people. Growing up in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, Xulu didn’t see art around him and believes that “exposure is important, murals expose you to things you haven’t seen and make you think”.

Thabang Mojela, also known as Gumball Bizzley, may be an artist but he also identifies as a healer and perspective changer. His work, a surreal image of floating eyes of various races and colours is aptly named the “Eyes of Eden”. It was inspired by the cartoons he grew up watching and by a psychedelic trip he experienced. He says, “Although I do not advocate drugs, I do advocate spiritual awakening and attaining eternal life. Some people attain this state of mind through meditation and others through spiritual practices like Zen.”

In comparison Johnny Alison, an up-and-coming street artist, found the open brief hard at first. As an arts and design student he was taught to follow the clients brief but this project was open ended and called for him to explore his own identity. He chose to paint African animals, highlighting unity, with the animals acting as metaphors for family, love, pride and conquest.

Farai Engelbrecht, better known as Samurai Farai, is a fine arts graduate, artist and curator interested in creating alternative spaces for art. Farai’s work and mural was compelled by his struggle with mental health. He believes art can be a tool to create conversations around this. Seeing himself as a cultural pioneer, he “loves the idea of having art outside or in public spaces as we start to dissolve the barriers that exist between the art world and normal society. By putting it in the space of the public, we elevate the art, normalise it and we create inclusivity. And I think our country needs that.”

Spending time with these dynamic artists, it’s impossible not to be inspired by the idiosyncratic way they see life and the unique mark they have left on Braamfontein. Levy sums it up best. “Art, murals in particular, have the power to create a sense of community, pride and belonging. Play Braamfontein has already orchestrated more than 20 major murals in the area and, one by one, they will ignite a sense in people that this is a city worth belonging to and taking care of.” 

The Playground Market is open every Saturday from 10am to 6pm. To vote for their favourite mural, visitors to the market can take a picture of their top artwork, add it to their Instagram story & tag @heineken_sa & @theplaygroundjhb.

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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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