Curatorial Notes on ‘(in)Visible bodies: Migrants in the city of gold’
I have included in Cities Methodologies 2012 three projects produced by artists from Johannesburg. Each of the selected projects encapsulates a particular understanding of the realities of living and working in the contemporary urban cityscape of Johannesburg. However, when grouped together, the relationship between movement and the visibility of the body becomes a central motif that allows for a more multifaceted, complex vision of the city of Johannesburg to emerge.
The concept of ‘migration’, as the movement of bodies from one place to another, is utilized as a useful framework through which to rethink the complex interplay between what is rendered in/visible by the symbolic, economic, political and historic dimensions of the city of Johannesburg.
The three works are ‘Challenging Mud – after Kazuo Shiraga’ (2008) by Johan Thom, the ‘Hillbrow/Dakar project’ (2007-8) by Hobbs/Neustetter and the ‘TrolleyWorks’ (2007) by Ismail Farouk.
1. Movement and complexity
All three works contain trace elements of the ongoing material movement of bodies within, into and from the city of Johannesburg: Whether it concerns the physical act of carting over-sized baggage from the taxi rank in modified supermarket trolleys as shown in ‘TrolleyWorks’ by Farouk, using hand-drawn city maps to go searching for long-lost friends, family or familiar places located elsewhere in Africa as shown in the ‘Hillbrow/Dakar’ project by Neustetter and Hobbs, or witnessing the slow process of burying a body covered in gold presented by Thom in ‘Challenging Mud’. In turn, this movement continues to shape the city of Johannesburg and its prominent place within Africa and the world.
Artists, entrepreneurs and people of vastly different interest and backgrounds from all over Africa and the globe continue to flock to Johannesburg in search of the reward and recognition it promises. In this regard it may be argued that the fact of the discovery of gold in 1886 remains ever-present in the Johannesburg’s contemporary status as a highly sophisticated, economic metropolis – one that is often locally referred to as eGoli, the ‘place of gold’, in Zulu. Today this idea is largely symbolic with the depletion of the gold reserves fast becoming a reality. (It is estimated that up to forty percent of the world gold reserves have been unearthed in and around Johannesburg). However, in its stead the world of corporate business, global banking, sports and electronic media continues to make Johannesburg the largest business center in South Africa and arguably all of Sub-Saharan Africa. In this way the city continues to engender a sense of hope and possibility, one it is argued here as being underpinned by the possibility of ‘becoming-visible’ by and through ones belonging to it.
In this regard, in choosing to group such different projects together I want to allow for complexity to emerge beyond the familiar post-apartheid South African narratives of race, exploitation and poverty: For example, the contemporary (im)migrant community at stake in the ‘Hillbrow/ Dakar’ project is Senegalese and not simply the European colonial settlers of centuries ago. Similarly, in Farouk’s ‘TrolleyWorks’, the harsh brutality of making a living within the informal economy of contemporary, urban Johannesburg is highlighted – the difficulty of which remains almost invisible to the more familiar narratives of economic growth/ inequity and racial disharmony that have, for better or for worse, become the lingua franca of South Africa’s ongoing participation in global society. Born in Johannesburg, Thom is a descendant of Scottish immigrants that first came to South Africa in search of better prospects now more than a century ago.
2. The Rainbow Nation
Perhaps in retrospect the miracle of South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy under the banner of the ‘new South Africa’ in 1994, seems largely premised upon the fulfillment of a multi-racial vision, and not that of the recognition of a multi-cultural strata of ever-changing ‘migratory bodies’ through and by which a city like Johannesburg first came into existence.
Contemporary post-apartheid South Africa is the ‘rainbow nation’, a trope that is in turn largely premised upon reconfiguring the value of skin color within, and part of, a nation-state in the singular. In South Africa the value of race has long served only to divide: The implementation of ‘Apartheid’ (literally ‘separateness’) from 1940 by the National Party effectively split the country into separate territories for various racial groups. Under the Group Areas Act of 1948 these territories, or ‘homelands’ were placed under control of a central white government. Ordinary South African’s were not allowed to reside in each others’ legally designated territory and black South Africans were expected to carry a ‘pass’ with them at all times (the passes were something like passports showing their territory of origin, place of temporary residence and current employ). Failure to produce a pass could result in immediate detention, physical beatings and even deportation.
Such draconian policies were a direct result of the uneven workings of Apartheid, with cities such as Johannesburg effectively forming a part of ‘white’ South Africa. Of course with discovery of gold (amongst other minerals) a large labor force was needed to exploit this abundant natural resource. People from rural South Africa now flocked to Johannesburg. But through the policy of Apartheid black South African’s were rendered as a temporary and cheap resource of labor: they were merely migrant laborers on contract, with little to no recourse to the laws, amenities and general infrastructure such as healthcare provided by white South Africa for its white citizens. The black mine workers were effectively treated like prisoners, isolated in mine compounds and driven to and from their place of work by their employer. In this way highly profitable industries such as the gold mines were owned and managed by white South Africans (often in cahoots with conglomerates from western Europe) with black South Africans forming part of a largely unskilled, temporary labor force that could be drawn from, dispatched and ultimately dismissed at will.
But I daresay that not even the brutal machinery of apartheid could effectively control the mass migration people of all creeds and colors to a city like Johannesburg. Massive ‘townships’ (something like informal settlements) sprung up all over South Africa close to cities and sites of industry. For example, near Johannesburg the township of Soweto – an acronym for ‘South Western Townships’ – quickly became a city unto itself, with hundreds of thousands of ‘temporary’ black workers finding refuge in its confines. Soweto is located on what is colloquially known as the ‘mining belt’ – a stretch of land (including Ekurhuleni, Boksburg, Germiston, Brakpan and Johannesburg, amongst others) where massive supplies of gold have been, and continue to be, unearthed.
Importantly, townships like Soweto became hotbeds of political activity, where anti-apartheid organizations such as the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress could flourish. Soweto is perhaps best known today for the ‘Soweto Riots’ of 16 June 1976, when the twelve-year-old pupil Hector Peterson was gunned down and killed by the Apartheid police.
3. Visible matter/ Invisible forces
Today the relative invisibility of the trolley pushing community, and indeed that of the huge African immigrant community in Johannesburg, also bolsters the possibility of their systematic economic, political, cultural exploitation within the confines of urban Johannesburg. The wave of xenophobic violence that engulfed South Africa in mid 2008 also affected Johannesburg, where at the height of the outbreak privately owned taxis would refuse to carry immigrants from elsewhere in Africa, for example (something this author experienced firsthand).
Here ‘Challenging Mud’ by Thom hints at the golden promise of better prospects and the somewhat ritualistic, though commonplace violence of its denial to the bulk of Johannesburg’s population. Access to wealth remains the privilege of a select few with various forms of social, cultural and economic inequity all fostering a deeply divided society. However, in configuring this division along purely racial lines of erstwhile apartheid ideology a broad range of narratives, lives and livelihoods are today effectively erased from public view.
Of course, as the projects included here would suggest this erasure is always temporary, contingent as it is upon the ongoing process of making (in)visible of migratory bodies within the ever changing city and the socio-economic and political narratives that seek to define & fix their place within it. In this regard it is argued that the sheer materiality of the projects in question anchors them in a resistant ‘real’, one that frustrates the grand narratives of identity, place and belonging such as narrowly conceived of within the ‘apartheid’/ ‘post-apartheid’ continuum.
4. Migratory bodies, cities and identities
Though Johannesburg may be defined in large by it’s history, its continued relevance and prominence in the world is certainly also due to the relative ease with which one may engage with, move through and generally make yourself physically visible to others, whether it concerns making a living, striking up a casual conversation or even making art. For here within this curated grouping of artworks, beyond the well-known history of mining and the struggle against apartheid, the city of Johannesburg is conceived of in more intimate, personal and corporeal terms too. Bodies are not merely laborers or static placeholders that embody a single racial identity but are conceived of as being dynamic, ever-moving physical entities that constantly traverse and give palpable form to a city.
In short, despite the lingering importance of displacing the narratives of Apartheid, there exist a real need to think about the more intimate, corporeal gestures and interactions of say, drawing a map from memory whilst talking to strangers, of burying a family member, or even of pushing a shopping trolley through a massive, contemporary city in order to make a daily living.
Lastly, it is fitting to note that, despite their widely diverging content and focus, all three works are indeed collaborative in nature. Each of these works was made possible by intimate, personal exchanges between the artists and the different communities at stake. Even ‘Challenging mud’ by Thom, that may appear to be a rather straightforward video installation artwork, is in fact a deeply collaborative effort: firstly by virtue of the involvement of friends and family during the process of its making and, secondly, through its tact acknowledgement of the viewer via the exact form of its display in the gallery.
Johan Thom, 2012