Fiona Siegenthaler: Imageries of Johannesburg. Visual Arts and Spatial Practices in a Transforming City
PhD-thesis, Institute of Social Anthropology, 2011
This PhD thesis asks how contemporary visual artists in the city of Johannesburg perceive, reflect, and represent urbanity and social change. Focusing on the last 15 years of transition, it analyses artworks in diverse media including painting, photography, video, printmaking, installations and performance in public space. It considers the variety and the historically and socially relevant contexts in which the artists live and which often are reflected in their artistic practice. Their strategies are multiple, depending on their aims, their education, their economic position as well as the social environment with which they identify. It shows that not only the city, but also the artists’ attitude towards it are permanently being reshaped.
Urban change is taking place all over the world. African cities in particular represent a central topic in that they belong to the fastest growing cities in the world. They also are nodal points in international and global networks. Much has been written about the significance and often massive transformation of African cities, but only little research has been done about the way in which these transformations are perceived and reflected by visual artists. Johannesburg, and in particular its inner city has experienced a great political, social and cultural change since the end of apartheid and the introduction of democracy in 1994. It is also the place where many visual artists live and work and where they take their inspiration from.
Specific Objectives/Research Questions
This PhD thesis asks how contemporary visual artists in the city of Johannesburg perceive, reflect, and represent urbanity and social change. Focusing on artists dealing with the city in their work in the last 15 years of transition, the thesis covers and interrelates three major aspects of how the city firstly is experienced, secondly reflected discursively, and thirdly represented visually. It thus tries to trackimageries and imaginaries of the city on the basis of both social and artistic practice.
The approach is based on a combination of perspectives and methods from art history and social anthropology such as work analysis, interviews, and participant observation.
While the artistic media used reflect the legacy of apartheid education, the topics of interest, spatial orientation and spoken statements of artists vary according to age, social network, and social as well as economic standing. While in some aspects the segregationist urban history still is palpable in the way artists reflect and represent Johannesburg, its imageries tend to become more diverse. Especially the early transformational years, when the population of the inner city changed and city management was close to dysfunctional, triggered the artists’ interest. Recent regeneration projects however rather seem to incite a new interest for small cities and rural areas.