Walking through Johannesburg is like wandering through a living, breathing gallery, where mosaic, wooden, beaded and metal sculptures, concrete creations and decorative benches from local and international artists adorn the streets. It’s all part of a major revitalization of the city, and the undisputed queen of the public art is the Firewalker, an 11-meter-high metal sculpture that overlooks the Queen Elizabeth Bridge into the city.
Designed by Gerhard Marx and William Kentridge—arguably South Africa’s most famous living artist—Firewalker represents a familiar image to city residents: A woman, bundled up against the cold and carrying a brazier on her head, she is the embodiment of the many women who sell grilled corn and smilies (half a grilled sheep’s head) to commuters traveling in and out of the city. From different angles, she is either a complete image or a series of steel sheets reminiscent of newspapers blowing across city streets.
The Johannesburg Development Agency has been responsible for funding most of the public art in the city, spending 1 percent of the city’s total capital expenditure budget to beautify the city with public art. Of particular interest: previously rundown areas most people wrote off long ago.
Not far from the Firewalker are the Juta Street Trees, 9 steel-cutout trees that have been placed on street corners east and west of the Nelson Mandela Bridge. Conceptualized by public art consultants the Trinity Session, designer Claire Regnard and a group of students from the Imbali Visual Literacy Project, the trees cast their own unique, organic but very solid shadows across the city streets.
The World Cup has also been incorporated as a theme: Commuters traveling up Joe Slovo Drive toward the Ellis Park Soccer Stadium are confronted by a soccer field made from reflective chevrons mounted on wooden stakes on the center island.
The real scale of the JDA’s commitment to beautifying the city is most vivid when looking at the Hillbrow/Berea/Yeoville public art project, in which more than 41 artists contributed works to cover 200 city blocks. Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville are historic urban areas that have, over the years, been appropriated by slumlords, but are now being reclaimed by the city. Standout pieces in this project are the Angel of the North by Winston Luthuli, a concrete angel who stands sentinel over Hillbrow, keeping an eye on the busy streets below; and The Messenger by Marco Cianfanelli, a figure with outstretched radial arms who greets visitors to Yeoville.
—By Rebeca Kahn
—Photos by Claire Regnard; Johannesburg Development Agency