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Sunday, 7 September 2014

SITTING ON THE FENCE - Johannesburg Art Gallery

Today the road took me, once again, to The Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG). My previous blog has left me thinking about this space a lot. I live just over a kilometer away from it, and it is the closest gallery to my house, so it is not very surprising that the road would lead me here.  I always prepare myself for the visit:  there will be no other people there, the security guards and shop assistants are not being rude, they are just unbelievably bored, a gallery is meant to be a quiet place, etc., etc.  But somehow even with preparation I always leave the JAG feeling so disappointed.

The Entrance to JAG

So why do I keep going?  In my late teens and early twenties I discovered the Johannesburg Art Gallery and The Market Theatre.  I say discovered as it was the first time I was choosing to go there and not going on my mom's culture club, I was going by myself as a young adult.  The Culture Club was wonderful.  All the way from Springs a group of us from school would get on a big bus, drive for over an hour, and go experience art and culture in the city.  My mom's ingenious idea!  She was adamant that we would not wear uniform and that we would have free time wherever we were going, to wonder around and enjoy the space.  Many teachers believed this was a bad idea - 'They will run riot!  We will not be able to find them!'  My mom believed otherwise, she believed that you give them responsibility and they will act like adults, broadly speaking she was right!

It was 1999, my first year at Wits Technikon, and JAG was just so wonderful.  Was it the amazing art? The history? The incredible art library which made it so wonderful?  Well, um, the first thing that comes to mind was the Hare Krishna restaurant.  It was cheap!  They served big portions!  It was yum!  We went there regularly, at least once a week, looking at art, visiting the library, eating yummy food.  It was part of the culture if you were studying art.  I was not aware of the demographics, of rich or poor, black or white, I was aware that it was a cool place to be - there was a vibe, a mood when you entered. My facts may even be wrong, but the memory has lasted!

Today it is something else...

The gate separating two public spaces

Joubert Park

Today there is no mood.  There are no people.  The gallery is completely empty and I do not see anyone else in the space except the security guards.  The restaurant is closed.  There is no where to sit and have a drink.  The courtyards feel sad, no music or vibe exists.  I left feeling unsatisfied, I left feeling uninspired.  There are a few exhibitions on, some of them are quite interesting and challenging.  There are some amazing artworks to see, but the mood on entering has already affected me so much that I cannot feel inspired or challenged by the art.  So I leave and on walking out, I am faced with the green fence separating JAG from  Joubert park.  I notice that in Joubert park there are lots of people; some eating lunch, some sleeping, talking, relaxing, and I wonder why those people aren't here.

Alex Opper pointed out something very interesting in his talk at JAG a month ago: he pointed out that the green fence separating Joubert Park and JAG is a fence separating two public spaces; two spaces that appeal to two different types of public.  Just think about it for a minute...2 spaces that welcome the public, that are paid for by the City of Johannesburg, that are free, that are intended to be for the public - separated by a big green fence.  If there was ever a visual representation of the true nature of galleries and museums this is it.  'Yes, of-course we welcome the public, this space is for everyone, just not THAT public!' 

On the one side we  No-one who is from the RIGHT public wants to go to the wrong part of town.  So I stand by myself, with the security guard of course because I most definitely am the RIGHT public.  I am educated, middle class, and white.  No THAT public is not for me, as the security guard quickly warns me.  I challenge her about this idea of two public spaces and ask her why THAT public can't be on this side?  She replies saying that THAT public will just sit around or do crime and that they are not welcome on THIS side.  She goes on to warn me that I mustn't go on that side because it is very very dangerous.  I challenge her once again, why is it dangerous on that side?  I live down the road, what is different between THAT side and the rest of Jozi?  To this she speaks to the other security guard and advises that I go inside and ask them my questions.  Instead I go to the fence, them shaking their heads, and I speak to THAT public.  To my absolute amazement no large weapons or guns are pulled out at me.  I even have a phone, and my car keys are in my car door, but no-one jumps up like savages at the gate (OK I am getting a bit carried away here!) But I went to the gate and started speaking to the guys on the other side.  I asked them if they know what this big building is, one answers a police station, another says he has no idea, a third says isn't it a place that has pictures inside?  I asked them if they have ever been inside and of course the answer is no. Why? I continue...that space isn't for us.  I ask them who that space is for, but they have no idea.  I then tell them 'Do you know that you are welcome to go into that space, that it is for the public.'  They couldn't believe it, they said that they have no money to go into places like that, and so the conversation went on.

Then as I was walking away and said good bye another man said hello to me and asked me if I was a journalist.  We started chatting, he was not from South Africa, I am not sure where he was from his accent was strong, maybe Congo.  He asked me what was in the gallery, so I explained that it is art, sculptures, paintings, it is for the public to come look.  He then asked me "Will I find inspiration in there?"  I smiled and said yes.

The gallery is not for THAT public, I am not even sure it is for THIS public.  It sits on the fence.  The one public is there, but does not know about the gallery, is not welcomed into the gallery, and if they did know or were welcomed would they be interested?  The other public doesn't like coming to Jozi.  The Northern suburbs are full of THAT public, and they will try their utmost to not come into the CBD. They are scared, they hate the filth, they hate being surrounded by a majority of non-white working class.  So the gallery sits on the fence, unable to please either side.  

So I propose a different solution to the JAG problem.  What if JAG accepts that it lives on the fence. Surrounded by THAT public, wanting THIS public and instead of not appealing to either, begins to appeal to both??
Sounds crazy, and perhaps it is, but what if the restaurant upstairs was run by a mama who is a caterer in the area, and serves pap and vleis, among other things.  What if it was cheap?  What if there was music playing in the outside courtyards for people to sit in, and yes, feel inspired.  The music could be African jazz or something that also sits on the fence between THAT and THIS public.  What if certain rooms in JAG did not show art, but taught basic computer literacy in one, dance in another, or CV writing.  What if THIS public was invited to donate their old suits and business clothes and there was a room that was set up for THAT public to get a nice outfit for a job interview they may have.  What if Joubert Park and JAG were open to each other and there was music heard between the two.  What if performers and poets, ice cream men and photographers (who are already there) were invited to come every weekend, to perform.  What if small public concerts were held at Joubert Park coinciding with an opening at JAG.

This idea may seem completely crazy, but I cannot take ownership of it.  Johannesburg CBD is this already.  The city lives on the fence between different races, cultures, classes, languages, not just from South Africa, but from Africa.  I will give two examples of this, that impact my daily life...
   1.  On Friday afternoon the area I live in starts getting animated.  There is more laughing, joking and hanging around.  It starts with Jeppe Boys' across the road, playing bagpipes.  The kids practice over and over again traditional Scottish songs.  Then I hear my neighbors on the left with their music - soul/hip hop is their choice.  The people behind us prefer reggae, then on Sunday morning I hear African gospel, and someone in the distance is playing jazz.  There is pop or trance coming from somewhere too, and then I hear from the park down the road African drums being played, it is guys practicing their gumboot dancing.
This sounds completely chaotic, noisy and unbearable, but you would be surprised how quickly you look forward to the life that you hear from everyone.  This is not heard in suburbia.  In fact, suburbia is dead silent and I often wondered if I actually even had neighbors.
    2.  On the walk to my kids school, which is about 8 blocks, I first pass a mosque which has Nigerian, Indian, Senegalese and Arab Muslims,  then a Catholic church which is as mixed as the mosque, a Chinese old age home, 2 garage shops, and then my kids school which is Hindu based.  If I walked less than a km towards town I would get to the Spiritual Mountain where many Z CC and other African Christian faiths worship, down the other road I would get to the Buddhist center.  This all within walking distance from my home, never mind all the people who gather in homes to pray which is also sometimes heard.

The most common thing between one another, in Jozi, is that we are not the same.  In our differences there is some kind of comfort and acceptance.  But we must come together equal and willing to acknowledge each other and give space for each other to be.  JAG, and the way galleries function does not acknowledge anything but itself.  It is not just a white space, empty for people to contemplate, it comes with baggage and a very specific culture attached to it.

JAG, you are one of the lucky galleries.  Your location gives you the opportunity to challenge the idea of a gallery and become more like your surroundings.

 THIS public will come, THAT public is here, it is up to you to allow the platform for them to co-exist.

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