When you are tucked comfortably into Johannesburg’s Northern suburbs, the word of inner city enclaves that accommodate you and your neighbours is enthralling. So you make that journey – it’s towering buildings, that one bridge and with every red light, you cautiously gaze at the dense bustle of unfamiliarity. With one turn, the stark difference of your destination will assure you know that you have arrived. Almost every other person will have a takeaway coffee cup in hand and you will be left to figure out of all the cafes on every corner, which actually serves the best flat white. There will probably be an art gallery or two, maybe even three. Black boys will be skateboarding between cars trying to find a parking spot and you will wonder why they can’t use the empty bicycle lanes instead. The weekend market that you most likely came all this way for sells craft beer, artisans baked goods, cold meats, and overpriced international and local cuisine. Once that gets old, there will be a steak house or a concept store stocking local apparel or a pop up juice or gin bar that you can drop by. As you pose for a photo with the street art, you admire the luxury apartments and hired security guards and imagine a life here. Your visit will probably end in a dimly lit bar with an even darker dance floor. When you arise the day after, you will be certain of the lackluster of suburbia so you decorate your Instagram page with this colourful experience and encourage more of your friends to join next weekend.
Surely, it’s not far fetched to imagine that visits to enclaves in Johannesburg’s inner city are something like that for the people that those spaces have been designed for?
Familiar with suburban life myself, the city was marketed in a way that confused my understanding of gentrification and rendered it simplistic. To be clear, gentrification is basically when people of a higher income or status relocate to or invest in a low income (and typically “urban”) neighbourhood. The aim is to capitalise on the low property values and in doing so the property value is inflated. This results in the original occupants of the neighbourhood being displaced because they cannot afford to live there anymore.
Moreover, this re-development of particular enclaves is culture led. Even though buy-to-leave investors seek to hollow out the neighbourhood through gentrification, there are certain landmarks that are salvageable and add to the authenticity of the space. However, through the curation of the space, the culture and character of the neighbourhood is altered. Everything that made that neighbourhood culturally unique is demolished. Consider it a social cleansing. Despite the occupants that have been economically excluded from the space, original visitors that frequented the space will slowly disappear because the social fabric has been gentrified.
The space now culturally barren uses art as a substitute for culture. Hence the street art and influx of galleries. According to academic art historian, Stephen Pritchard, this “complex deception” is referred to as “Artwashing”. Artwashing is basically art in the service of gentrification, which ultimately destroys the social capital of a space.
The establishment of galleries has become frightening because soon after, the gentrification begins. Think the corner of Bolton road and Jan Smuts, a block parallel to an art gallery, which now houses overpriced international cuisine and a sneaker store. Think Keyes avenue – affordable flats were replaced by a mile of eclectic restaurants, a noteworthy bar, sneaker stores, and luxury boutiques to neighbour the art galleries.
In gentrified enclaves around the world, the prevalence of artwashing has seen the rise to protests by artists themselves. Considering the mainstream rhetoric of the financial status of an artist, how can their work be used to manifest into the spatial expression of economic inequality? Personally, I have not witnessed Johannesburg’s interrogation of arts use in the reconstruction of a space and its culture. One thing that is for sure is that it is happening as the authentic culture of various spaces is being compromised in the name of capitalism.