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Invisible Cities

Not Just Sandton

by Lindokuhle Nkosi / 31.05.2011

I’ve stumbled upon a blog called “The Death of Johannesburg”, the purpose of which is to document the “physical destruction of Johannesburg in the New South Africa.” The readers, mostly ex-pats who refer to themselves as refugees reflect nostalgically on the CBD that once was. They lament on the demise of the KFC on the corner of something and something, apparently, an integral part of South African culture. And those who are still stuck in this hellhole of a country congratulate the ones who left in the 80s, before the blacks took over. The ones who fled en masse, with their investment money and title deeds. Leaving behind buildings, derelict and filled with squatters, that can’t be sold.

I won’t pretend that the Joburg CBD is the most pleasant place to be. It’s the abolishment of pass laws. Our porous borders. The choking piss smell and the Nigerian drug dealers in their flashy suits and snake skin shoes. The internet cafes where you can buy an ID book and a whore for the night. It’s the collapse of rent controls; the disregard for basic health and safety that have transformed it from a bustling social hub of music, art and liberal politics; into one of the “unsafest areas of the world”. Not that it was meant to be the cosmopolitan district it has evolved to, mind you. Designed and marketed as a sanatorium for the rich, Yeoville and its surrounding suburbs were created to give the wealthy a break from the mining smog and pollution. Except the rich came and left. They didn’t quite buy into it, and now forty-something odd years later, misty eyed investors and a pressurised government are pumping millions back into the city as part of their Urban Gentrification Programme.

Invisible Cities

Enter Invisible Cities, a 12 part year-long cultural exhibition that has shunned the comforts of the sterile suburbs and taken residence in empty, decrepit concrete towers in the CBD. After navigating through a mini construction site, and up 6 flights of stairs , I (tight chest, short of breath) finally reach the rooftop of Revolution House, corner Kruger and Main. It’s fucking cold, the sun, a futile ornament in the wintry Joburg sky. Its half past four before the first band takes the stage.

The Frown, fronted by a snarling Eve Rakow, draw varied responses from the crowd. It could’ve been the cold. Maybe that typical Jozi mentality that prefers to make a band sweat before we allow ourselves to show that we’re actually have fun. Fun. Nice. Flat words that attempt to convey a sense enjoyment, but like the band, they seem to fall a little short. The synthesiser drowns out the cellist, who looks a little misplaced in her dainty white tiara. And for all her melodic howls, her aggressive gestures and clawed hands, Eve just looks like someone who is trying to appear intimidating. A good attempt though. A fair shot, but at what? I’m thinking Bjork. I’m thinking the forest that little Red Riding Hood was warned not to enter; but walked through anyway. Just not imposing enough.

Invisible Cities

“We felt like everyone was leaving the city again. Like the hype had faded, y’know. You have people who came for the wrong reasons, made their money and left, but the city is still alive.” Mpumi from BLK JKS (one of the Invisible Cities organisers) leans against a graffiti’d wall. On the stage to the left, men in sequined leggings are preparing to perform. Painted onto the wall behind them, three words. “WE WON’T MOVE!” I ask Mpumi about the Sophiatown reference, and whether he finds it a contradiction in terms. The empty buildings have been chosen as venues because they are “no longer what they once were, and not yet what they will soon become”. They were chosen for their transitory nature. Chosen to attract people back to the city, and the words on the wall imply that the people never left. But just like Sophiatown, they did.

“We’ll we’re back now’” he says, smiling as if he’s just avoided a trap. “We’re taking ownership of our cities, and it’s as if we never left.”
I ask if he thinks the Sophiatown reference is racially exclusive. “That’ll be easier to answer,” he says as his smile fades. “No.”

I pushed a little too hard. Took it a little too far and the interview has changed colour. I could apologise and ask him something about his motivation maybe; but The Brother Moves On is about to begin and I use this as an escape.

They are an intriguing enough bunch, grown men in shiny tights, furry jackets and war paint. In front of the stage; a man dressed as “Black Diamond Butterfly” and a girl, “The Black Widow” grind and slide over each other suggestively, but with very little skill. They’re distracting; her in various states of undress, thrusting her hips towards him, towards the ground. It’s obvious that this is unrehearsed. It looks like something they decided over drinks last night. “It’ll be hilarious darling. I’ll carry my ANC Black Diamond Bag.”

Invisible Cities

Finally Siya, now known as Mr. Gold introduces himself and the band in that post-colonial amalgamated African accent popularised by Hollywood. A story–teller, he flows between mediums; shouting, singing, praying. The “Human Insects” upfront try hard to keep our eyes on them, but with the band warmed up and in full swing, they’re easily ignorable. Mr Gold’s voice is unrestricted. He shouts into the mic with the abandon of a man who is fully aware of his voice. Who is familiar with its strengths and failing. The guitars complement each other. The drums are hard-hitting,the base mesmerising in its solemn reverberations. The Deejay randomly scratches here and there, it takes nothing from the music, but it adds nothing either. The performance is enthralling. The crowd dances, or at least attempts to; bouncing from foot-to-foot to the traditional Xhosa music inspired funk.

In the ad-hoc interview, Mpumi mentions how he finds beauty in deconstruction. Earlier in the week, they’d hauled a second-hand piano up the stairs, and filmed it burning on the rooftop. The image is projected on the side of one of the walls. “Perception informs how people behave. We want to show them that everything is beautiful. Not just Sandton. Your city is beautiful too.”

Invisible Cities

*All images © Lindokuhle Nkosi

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