Thesis 11 Special Issue

Performative Jozi

Peformative Jozi, a Special Issue of the journal Thesis Eleven: Critical Theory and Historical Sociology, is guest edited by Andrew W. Mellon Chair of Critical Architecture and Urbanism and Wits City Institute Director Noëleen Murray in collaboration with Peter Vale, Director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study.

Thesis Eleven Volume 141, Issue 1 / August 2017

Words: Noëleen Murray and Peter Vale excerpt from Johannesburg: Colonial anchor, African performer, their co-authored introduction to the Special Issue.

Image: Svea Josephy Satellite Cities

The idea of the performative as a lens through which to look at and think about the complex city known variously as Johannesburg, eGoli (meaning City of Gold), or Jozi (a colloquial name for the city), is located in concepts circulating in understandings of how space is produced in complex ways that unfold situationally and relationally. This formulation seems particularly apt when considering the particular histories of Johannesburg, a city that appears to be able to reinvent itself with uncanny regularity.


In many ways, the lure of Johannesburg is embedded in the DNA of all South Africans: the mythical idea of the City of Gold has as much influence on the national imaginary as the ‘real’ city would seem to claim in many of its representations in art, literature, and performance. In no small way, Johannesburg is the great city of South Africa; its founding following the discovery of gold in 1886 catapulted a colonial backwater into the mainstream of international finance and trade networks, and the resulting energy accelerated the irrevocable processes of modernity in the country and the region, so much so that it has been called, in the words of Achille Mbembe, the ‘seminal’ African metropolis.

Like other modern cities, Johannesburg is a complex ecological, economic, and technical system, which is increasingly integrated into regional and global circuits of cities and mediated by networks of material and fragile flows. Like other cities, Johannesburg will increasingly require a sophisticated society and active citizenry in order to reproduce and transform itself in an increasingly globalising but uneven world. Making sense of how and why these processes happen in our times demands of legislators and interpreters alike to develop critical apparatuses and hermeneutical approaches that are both self-reflexive and imaginative. Where the social sciences have increasingly fixated on the collection of ‘big’ data delivered through globally-spread and internationally networked research projects, and place trust in realist epistemologies to provide representative knowledges of actually-existing cities, the humanities have embraced a range of diverse media to re-imagine cities.

It is therefore, in the spirit of working beyond the constraints of standard urban studies and regimes of spatial planning that this special issue of Thesis Eleven has been conceptualised and collated. With a focus on Johannesburg, Performative Jozi draws together writing and creative impressions focused on Johannesburg in a project that hopes to take seriously and engage with the question of how to write the city after apartheid, and to explore the possibility of the city that does not hinge on fixing or capturing a single narrative, or history, or urban aspect. In the many and diverse writings, creative art, and research projects featured, the intention is to move beyond formulaic constructs of Johannesburg (and its place in regard to the pantheon of African cities), and instead to offer an accounting of its novelties, complexities, and originalities.

The papers, creative essays and writings, and reviews included in Performative Jozihave been drawn from the presentations and discussions that took place during the Performative Urbanisms workshop.

Literary scholar Ed Charlton’s essay Melancholy Mapping: a ‘Dispatcher’s Eye’ and the Locations of Loss in Johannesburg seeks to establish the critical potential of melancholy as mode of mapping the city of Johannesburg in such a way that it remains attentive to the city’s material losses as well as its conceptual elisions, while simultaneously holding on to melancholy as an affective condition, and a psycho-spatial categorization. Through an analysis of Mark Gevisser’s book Lost and Found in Johannesburg (2014), Charlton considers how Gevisser, in writing his ‘memoir of the self in the city’, points to Johannesburg as a space ‘to a disquieting degree, still … patterned by elision, oblivion, and disorientation’.

Following from this, architect Mpho Matsipa’s paper ‘Woza!’ Sweetheart! On Braiding Epistemologies on Bree Street describes the practice of hairdressing and braiding as offering a series of alternatives to describe and think about issues of gender, space and spatial planning, survival, and governance in an area of intense business activity and identity-making amid a main thoroughfare in the transformed Johannesburg central business district. Drawing on personal contacts and experience, Matsipa examines how hair braiding has offered black women an opportunity to challenge the neoliberal city’s colonising and codifying orders, and a means to challenge the grand narratives of spatial governance told by city authorities and property and business owners, for whom Johannesburg’s inner city is best described as being in ‘crisis’.

Historian Cynthia Kros and artist Georges Pfruender’s essay Babel Re-Play discusses the first phase of a collaborative project that seeks to understand modernity in contemporary cities using the methods of art as research and play theory. Involving artists and academics in Johannesburg and Switzerland, the project is inspired by the open-endedness, and seemingly endless iterations and re-plays of the biblical Tower of Babel myth produced through the ages by philosophers, scholars, writers, and artists.

Photographer Svea Josephy explores another tower in the city in Acropolis Now: Ponte City as ‘Portrait of a City’. The high-rise apartment building Ponte City, towering above suburban Berea and Hillbrow close to Johannesburg’s downtown city centre, is the subject of this essay, which discusses a contemporary art photography project that takes the building as its central point of analysis and interest. The exhibition and book project titled Ponte City, by South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky and British artist Patrick Waterhouse, is comprised of archival documents, personal narratives of residents present and past, architectural plans and publicity materials, commissioned writings, and found materials, all curated alongside art photography in a lavish presentation box. The author, herself a fine art photographer, situates this multi-layered work within a broader trajectory of art and documentary photography devoted to representations of the city of Johannesburg (and adjacent inner-city neighbourhoods), that span apartheid and postapartheid decades.

The question of performativity is central in the collaboration between artist Christine Dixie and literary scholar/ boxer James Sey, whose richly visual essay Wrapping Johannesburg – A Boxing Story takes the form of a ‘performative’ dialogue between its co-authors, each of whom interrogate and elaborate upon their separate experiences of boxing (in training and in the ring), to offer an unorthodox analysis of the interfaces between boxing, art, and space. By engaging intellectually and experientially with the critiques and social rituals surrounding boxing, the authors offer an analysis of boxing as an epistemological inquiry that suggests fresh and creative ways to think through the relationships between art, and the urban space of Johannesburg in particular. Drawing on artworks both ancient and modern, literature, cinematography, the African technique of bare-fist fighting musangwe, and fine art printmaking, the authors invoke various registers in their discussions about space in and out of the ring, while their narratives and experiences range from ancient Rome to the contemporary suburb of Hillbrow close to central Johannesburg, and from Rosebank in Johannesburg’s fancy northern suburbs, to the Lundevhe River in northern Venda adjacent to South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe.

In keeping with the critical intention of the workshop to showcase work across genres, Svea Josephy’s photographic essay Satellite Cities is a collection of photographs that explores the connections set up by naming practices of settlements and cities that share the same or similar names but are geographically worlds apart. Josephy offers a series of diptych image-pairs that tease out the networks of perspectives and relationships that feature in settlements that are linked through names to far distant parts of the world. Some of these, often informal, settlements and communities in South Africa, are named after sites of war, struggle or conflict, or reference places of liberation and reconciliation.

The Johannesburg-based architect and award-winning author Yewande Omotoso’s interest in the spaces and structures of intimacy is reflected in the rhythm and spacing of her writing as much as it manifests in her design work. The excerpt from her novel Bom Boy, re-published here, reveals in fine-grained narrative detail, Omotoso’s concern with the interior spaces of alienation and attachment experienced by the protagonist of the novel. In the review section, urbanist Naomi Roux reflects on a series of titles selected from the burgeoning scholarly and popular literature on Johannesburg, with emphasis on the recently published artbook Up Up: Stories of Johannesburg’s Highrises(Dechman et al 2016), while urban geographer Siân Butcher provides a trenchant and wide ranging appraisal of the edited compendium Changing Space, Changing City: Johannesburg after Apartheid (Harrison et al 2014).