Wits City Institute Workshop

Art, Architecture, Museums & Social Practice: Studio 1

Social Practice in Architecture, Museums, and the Arts was jointly convened by Wits City Institute and Wenner-Gren Doctoral Fellow Njabulo Chipangura in collaboration with Wits City Institute Honorary Research Fellow Steven Sack to explore the representations of inequality and social practices of inclusion

17 April 2018 / 56 PIM Studio, corner Gwigwi Mrwebi Street and Miriam Makeba Street, Newtown

Words: Steven Sack, Patrick Bond, Njabulo Chipangura 

Images: Steven Sack, (from workshop) Bianca van Heerden

Representations of Inequality and Social Practices of Inclusion


Can the Rissik Street Post Office, a space under refurbishment in the heart of the formerly ‘whites-only’, ‘old’ City of Johannesburg, be repurposed as an activist museum space of social inclusion? And if yes, which objects (tangible or intangible, subversive, disobedient or highly-charged), might one choose to place in such a museum?

A group of academics, social justice workers, students, art and heritage practitioners, with architects and designers, spent a productive morning grappling with issues, starting with a debated centred on which objects might best allow a display of a physical representation of inequality in the world’s most unequal city? How might such objects might be displayed, and should be the place of museum and curatorial practices in such a project? Indeed, can the space of the museum be harnessed to a project of critiquing inequality?

Provocations and engagements from the audience stretched thinking further. What would an activist museum be? Is it even appropriate to think of another museum given the multiple museums and other cultural infrastructure that the state provides, and the many poorly resourced museums already located in the city?

These were some of the questions up for debate at a seminar on the theme of Social Practice in Architecture, Museums, and the Arts, hosted by the Wits City Institute at 56 Pim Street in Newtown, a venue deliberately chosen to take the deliberations off-campus to signal an intention to draw in professionals, community-based organisations, and  City officials, through using a site more accessible to and within the spaces and places of social inclusion: in this case the Newtown Cultural Precinct. In keeping with this locational move, the second meeting in the series will take place at the Rissik Street Post Office on 18 May 2018.

This first meeting, jointly convened by Wits City Institute and Wenner-Gren Doctoral Fellow Njabulo Chipangura in collaboration with Wits City Institute Honorary Research Fellow Steven Sack, was held to initiate a process of research that would enable us to better define a set of distinctive practices, found primarily in the work of social activists and socially engaged communities and professionals in and around Johannesburg, as Chipangura explained. ‘We wish to propose a praxis routed in social struggles that address inequality in the context of museological and academic discourses, and to question institutions and practices that fail to deliver access and services to the less enabled members of our communities.’

The proceedings began with three presentations as a way of inaugurating thinking about those  objects that might best evoke inequality. The Wits School of Governance’s Patrick Bond suggested water, sanitation and the toilet as a potential for reading inequality based on research in communities located beyond the city of Durban’s zone of sanitation. Noëleen Murray used the example of a bed to show how inequalities were structured around different  values attached to that object in process of museum-making at Lwandle Hostel 33. Njabulo Chipangura illustrated how the diamond became an object of inequality in Chiadzwa, Eastern Zimbabwe. In this area, villagers were displaced by Chinese diamond mining companies. Instead of benefiting from the priceless value of the diamond, villagers were further impoverished. The diamond ended up benefiting elites and politicians and thus brought with it social exclusion.

Engagements from the floor provoked spirited discussion, and pertinent questions were asked: What are the key artefacts of social inequality? How do particular objects and the stories that narrate their acceptance or non-acceptance in our lives, operate as intellectual, symbolic and conceptual gateways? How do particular objects exist as integral parts of our lives? What kinds of objects best represent forms of inequality? Who are the artists, architects, curators, and public intellectuals engaged with a form of ‘social practice’ in and around Johannesburg? How do they relate to social movements, independent urban activists, organised and unorganised labour, women, youth, environmentalists?

What is meant by ‘social practice’ in this context, and what would be a critical practice? There are many examples of work commissioned by the city involving primarily artists, urban designers, and architects, and there are a number of buildings that have been repurposed and now host NGOs involved in a variety of socially-inclusionary programmes. Do the predictable distinctions between those with paid employment and those who volunteer their time remain divisive? Do class, race and gender divisions debilitate urban activism?

What are the key organisations and policies that describe Johannesburg’s community and networks of ‘social practice’? Here the spotlight should fall on policies and programmes related to public art, social housing, arts and culture NGOs working in the inner city, anti-eviction and other social activists, among others. In regard to space, which buildings or sites across the city accommodate forms of ‘social practice’, and what are their impacts on inequality? The Children’s Memorial Institute in Braamfontein hosts a range of NGOs that undertake a number of inclusionary programmes, some of them in artistic education.

The inner-city has been regularly populated with ‘social practice’. So too have townships and shack settlements, as well as suburbs. All of these locations have been sites where inequalities are both contested and reproduced.

These are dilemmas still to be grappled with. Further conversation will convene on 18 May 2018 at Rissik Street Post Office. Join us in this discussion and any other new ideas are welcome on how best we can establish a museum of social inequalities in Johannesburg.