Public Art - Indulgence or Asset?


Intro to series

In South Africa many blue chip corporates sponsor art events and own valuable corporate art collections. Some of this art is publicly available in the form of hosted art galleries like the Standard Bank Art Gallery in Johannesburg yet a large portion of South Africa’s art, including art originally intended as public art, remains behind closed doors.

Added to the cost of large scale artworks that interface well with architecture is the incredibly swift theft of any material that has value and is unprotected. Understandably this makes public art a difficult and possibly expensive undertaking for any developer or corporate. However, when one considers the costs of billboards and building wraps in a capital intensive zone like Sandton (a single building wrap can cost anywhere from R150 000 to R 1 million) it seems improbable that there aren’t more opportunities for public art.

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Over a series of interviews and photo essays I will explore and celebrate where some public and private partnership initiatives aimed at inner city or district rejuvenation have succeeded for example Braamfontein  and query why other have failed at great expense.

Foot Traffic Art

(Interview with Hannelie Coetzee in Maboneng District , September 2014)

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Title: "Ouma Miemie en Tant Vya Commissioner Straat 249 snapshot 1940's" 2012
Medium: Discarded stone mosaic on building
Dimention: 4m x 4m on second storey
Site Relevance: My Grandmother used to walk these streets in the 1940's when she worked at Greatermans as a seamstress.

Walk around the Maboneng District in Johannesburg and you will be struck by the bold and uplifting use of murals and artwork on many of the buildings. They have the effect of lifting your eyes from the pavement and the immediate street eye level of commercial business to look up to the tops of buildings which helps create an impression of a larger, more cohesive district. So while you might be happily shopping in the busy Sunday morning market your attention may be caught by the top of a building two blocks away which inspires curiosity to explore the district further. This ultimately is how you grow interest and develop scale as you commercially attract people to engage with a development precinct and increase its opportunity for commercial success.

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Title: "Ouma Miemie en Tant Vya Commissioner Straat 249 snapshot 1940's" 2012
Medium: Discarded stone mosaic on building
Dimention: 4m x 4m on second storey
Site Relevance: My Grandmother used to walk these streets in the 1940's when she worked at Greatermans as a seamstress.

Jonathan Lieberman the developer behind much of Maboneng’s growth is no stranger to the value of the art and how to deploy it for commercial benefit. His father Benji Lieberman is involved in a more rustic project, the Nirox Foundation which is an internationally respected art residency in the Cradle of Humankind, Muldersdrift.  Jonathan’s understanding of art’s role in enhancing the appeal of a district and assisting in commercial development is perhaps best described in my interview with Hannelie Coetzee, an artist who has had a symbiotic relationship with Jonathan in Maboneng over the past 5 years.

In exchange for free studio space she works on an agreed number of public art pieces within the district. Her art is about the fabric of the city surface, the walls and textures, resonant memories of her own past, the cities past, and the interaction between art, public traffic and time which creates a unique evolving system.  To create these fragile fleeting glimpses of a moment in time, she uses a tough, gritty technique which involves using an angle grinder as a drawing tool and sliced geology core samples as part of her pixelated palette.

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Title: "Change Agent" Commissioned by Propertuity for Maboneng Precinct, Johannesburg South Africa
Medium: Mosaic made of mining core
Dimention: 7m high x 3m wide
Collection: Maboneng Collection 2011

The fleeting quiet poetry of  ‘Trapsuutjies’ created for Freedom Day celebrations 2012 or the more architectural collaborative piece ‘Change Agent’ developed in conjunction with the developer and architect all contribute to the layers of intrigue that art adds to the district. Which then invites interest and brings more traffic into the area. Her weekly walkabouts usually have up to 20 people, some of them tourists and some of them groups of suburban housewives interested about shifts in the inner city. They are not her only audience though. Initial pieces like ‘Halo’ are alongside where recyclers unpack their trolleys and other ongoing street artworks’ invite public participation and discussion about the area. From car guards, building security to general passers by the interaction and genuine interest in the street level art has enabled it to reach and have a broader meaning for not only the visiting public but the community in the area that have lived there for a longer period. The opportunity to dialogue with the artist as she works has allowed a conversation about their role in the district upliftment.

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Title: "Trapsuutjies" engraved for Peace day 2012, Kruger Street, Johannesburg, 2012 Gauteng South Africa
Medium: Engraving on city wall
Dimention: 3m high x 1m wide

It is not possible to directly measure the contribution these pieces have made to the district. The approach of the artist and the collaborative engagement with a broader community is in direct contrast to the totem landmark art  ‘A monolith of fragments’ created with funding from the Johannesburg Development Agency with the internationally known Botswana-based wood and stone sculptor, Shepherd Ndudzo. This artwork was part of a project to create landmark sculptures at each corner of access to the city. I was unaware of these artworks until I did this walkabout with Hannelie and given that the original inscription was probably on a metal plaque any opportunity to find out more has long since been traded for cash at a scrap merchant.  Hannelie recognized the nature of the city when choosing her approach and doesn’t use valuable materials but works within the context of what can be achieved from the street level up. Each of her works is inscribed with a spray painted QR code which once scanned goes to a website which describes more of the artists intent. ( )

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Title: "Hover" Engraved on cnr Market and Berea Streets, Johannesburg
Medium: Engraving in burnt wall
Dimention: 3m high by 1m wide
Site Relevance: Recyclers collecting trash use this site to burn plastic off copper wire. The wire is sold for lunch money

Perhaps her approach is indicative of new ways of creating public art. In my opinion the interest it has brought into the space has brought more benefit than the totem artwork and I am left speculating what city budget went into the totem versus the longer term and probably more cost effective value created by collaboration.