Visualizing TransformationContemporary Art in Johannesburg
Project staff: Prof. Till Förster, Dr. des. Fiona Siegenthaler
Finanzierung: Funding: Schweizerischer Nationalfonds (SNF)
Urban change is a highly prevailing topic, not only strongly experienced but also debated in the big cities of many African countries. Much has been written about these urban transformations, but only little research has been done about the way how these transformations are perceived and reflected by visual artists. Johannesburg has experienced a strong impact of urban and cultural change since the end of apartheid and the introduction of democracy in 1994. Many artists of the younger generation engage in these processes of change in the city. Based on different art histories (which are related to the history of apartheid), they deal with urban change in their individual media and discourses. De-segregation, new segregations, migration, economic uncertainties, AIDS and crime are just a few of the topics which artists take up, partly replacing the resistance (and other) art of the preceding generation. But also the beauty, the unique history and the myths keep artists intrigued by the inner city of Johannesburg.
The aims and strategies of the artists have, however, changed in the era of transformation: The questioning of identity, political commitment and immediate coming to terms with the past have increasingly given way to an engagement with complex social phenomena, psychological studies and a preoccupation with urban culture within a rapidly changing city. The experience, examination and representation of the changes in the metropolis by contemporary artists is the centre of this research project. Its central question is:
The research questions of this project may be resumed as follows: To what extent is transformation “only” part of a programme in cultural and educational policy, or can it also be identified within the contemporary development of visual arts in Johannesburg? What forms, structures and aesthetics are peculiar to these “transformation/s in visual arts”? How are they related to the so called local, urban, national or “global” art history?
- How do the artists perceive and reflect urbanity and social change in Johannesburg within their work?
The approach is based on a combination of perspectives and methods from art history and anthropology, meeting in the recent discussion of visual culture as a newly emerging, interdisciplinary field of scholarly enquiry. A selection of artistic positions dealing with urban and social change covers different media like painting, photography, performance and more, and thus provides for a concept of diverse, historically influenced “art histories” as well as a perspective on differing notions of public space in a transitional city and its role in the artists’ agency. Crucial aspects are the artist's topics, visual interpretations and strategies specifically in terms of a contemporary urban space and its intrinsic potential of change.
Preliminary field work has been carried out since 2006 in Johannesburg, funded by the SNF (6 months research grant), by the Freiwillige Akademische Gesellschaft and by the University of Basel.