Johannesburg 1:1


Johannesburg 1:1 is a nomadic walk through a contemporary African city – a careful rendition of its hard surfaces and contours. Comprised of visual works inspired by the complexities of Johannesburg’s urbanity, and supplemented by essays as the walker drifts through the streets; the artist creates a unique and thought-provoking observation of the multi-faceted urban landscape. 

Selected works and excerpts: 

This work aims to investigate and develop new modes of rendering the built environment. The works, both visual and textual, are the result of a sensory experience with the surface of an African metropolis, considering these surfaces from angles of image-making, civic movement and geo/topography. In creating these works, I aim to situate myself on multiple axes of the city. First of these is the establishment of my physical contact point with Johannesburg – its tarmac, its pavement, its concrete cracks. Here, I attempt to render the surface of these contact points, ‘transferring’ them onto material that can be separated from its original reference points – pieces of the city that are obtained as markers of place on linear traversals of it. Here I determine my positioning on the city’s ‘y’ axis. Second of these axes is the situation and orientation of myself within Johannesburg’s geography – its ‘x’ axis. In doing so, I plot a series of boundaries within which I base my study, collectively forming a parameter of work. These points span the outer-city suburb of Kensington, Hillbrow, Braamfontein, Southwest into Fordsburg and Newtown and returning East through Marshalltown.

Finally, I plot a latent bearing – the positioning of this study in a vast library of texts and visuals on Johannesburg. I approach this work with the intention of rendering a perhaps lesser-explored area in this library – the physical surface of a city that has become the subject of intense thought and analysis, covered by multiple faculties the world over. In rendering the surface of the city, within the set parameter of work, I become lost, a vagabond. I suspend all motives for movement and action in order to find my contact point with the city. I walk. Along the way I drift through theories of Guy Debord and the Situationists, the intuitive mappings of the Stalkers, Francesco Careri’s nomadic city and doung Anwar Jahangeer’s spaces in-between. I take off my shoes, walking ten steps more, inviting the reader to do the same. David Bunn speaks of Johannesburg as a city with skin, once-supple, now hardened into keloid scars.1 This study attempts to render the city in its current state, providing a tactile precursor to the abovementioned bodies of work – touching the skin of Johannesburg, carefully rendering the contours of its fingerprint during a brief encounter.   

Looking at the City

The Johannesburg skyline, by virtue of the mechanics of vision and perspective, can only be seen when positioned some distance away from the city itself. This distance immediately removes the viewer from the physicality of the city, from the city’s appearance beyond its façades and exterior form. This distanced perspective allows the viewer the luxury of looking at the city endlessly. Here the viewer is not impeded by bound vision or time – two inherent characteristics of a walker’s experience in the city, nor do the city’s peripheries exist as mere memory maps – in many cases, the city can be viewed from its Western boundary through to its Eastern boundary. This viewpoint of the city can be perceived as a somewhat ideal perspective. Ideal in a way that; it can be categorized alongside alternate mode of looking at cities – modes that include the satellite image, or surveillance, or looking at the city from an airplane. These are views that require little interaction with the city itself beyond the visual act of looking. However, on looking at Johannesburg from ‘the outside’, despite the viewer’s physical exclusion from the city, it is automatically and instantly a city imaged; a city imagined. It is this realization that offers the point of departure for this study of the city. The M2 freeway that hugs the south side of the inner city offers such a perspective.

During the few minutes that the commuter travels on it, a cross-section of the city can be seen that spans the Standard Bank complex in the foreground, right up to the Johannesburg Sun and into Hillbrow in the distance.  It is this vista from the M2 Westbound that offered my first encounter with the city of Johannesburg on a visual level. I would frequent this route before substituting it for routes through the inner city itself. Here I become familiar with notions around looking at the city from this distanced perspective. I imagine the city beneath the building tops based on a combination of limited prior knowledge about Johannesburg, and memories of other cities that I have spent time in, South African and abroad. It is this experience that prompts my next step in getting closer to the city – the satellite map. Soon after my arrival in Johannesburg, I explore the inner city for the first time in the form of panning across it’s Cartesian grid from above. Here the viewer has complete freedom of the virtual city with continually advancing technologies. Once again, separated from the city itself, the metropolis is lifeless, still and placid. Perceived chaos becomes perfect geometry, and imagination moves a few steps toward reality.  

Modes of Looking 

Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.1 

 I begin my thoughts with a reference to those of Susan Sontag on the photograph as object. It is here that I begin to redefine my own visual representation of the built environment. I begin to depart from the photographed image in favor of an increasingly tactile mode of image-making. Through the act of walking, I am urged to feel the subject rather than merely represent it through a series of mechanical and optical processes. Classic or established modes of rendering and looking at the built environment are therefore altered through methodologies that I have developed, adopted or drawn inspiration from. Herein lies the frame through which this study is composed. It is this frame that allows me to render an image that is a truer representation of the African city at pavement level, yet this frame is one of contradiction: During my wandering and interaction with the surface of the city, I make a realization suggesting that the photographic image may serve as less of a truth but further toward an untruth in the context of rendering contemporary urban space in the African city. Or rather, a medium that rarely renders the said subject in its totality. Typically regarded as the contrary, John Berger states: No other kind of relic or text from the past can offer such a direct testimony about the world which surrounded other people at other times.2 It is through the creation of two works titled The Outer City and City Centre (seen on the following pages) that this realization takes root.        

The Outer City is a series of photographs made in a periphery zone in relation to the Johannesburg CBD. Here I photograph twenty-five concrete columns situated on the pavement in order to control the access of cars onto it. I then arrange these photographs in order of occurrence during a circuitry walk ‘around the block’. These photographs render a textured and somewhat stylized image of the city’s hard surfaces, however, it is here that the sensory experience ends. In seeking to lessen and ultimately minimize the layers between myself and the surface of the city, I interrogate the camera as a tool for visual representation. I attempt to bring the inner workings of the camera onto the outside, discarding the lens and aperture, along with its manipulation of reality. In doing so, I introduce paper as a medium, inviting reality to manipulate it. The result of this action comes in the form of City Centre. This piece sees the layering of paper directly onto the surface of the pavement, pressed with graphite, revealing its impression; the tactile path imaged. Further to the physical process of imaging the surface of the city, I add a geographic element to the exercise; the consideration of the image in relation to Johannesburg. In determining the point at which this action is to take place, I establish the co-ordinates on which the centre of Johannesburg occurs – Jeppe Street - the base of it’s pin in contemporary cartography. What does the centre of Johannesburg look like, what does it feel like?




1. Bunn, D. (2008). Art Johannesburg and Its Objects. In Nuttall, S & Mbembe, A (Eds.), Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis (137-169). 


1. Simone, A. (2008). People as Infrastructure. In Nuttall, S & Mbembe, A (Eds.), Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis (68-90). 2. Careri, F. (2002). Walkscapes: Walking as an aesthetic practice, 383. Careri, F. (2002). Walkscapes: Walking as an aesthetic practice, 38

Modes of Looking

1. Sontag, S. (1973). On Photography, 2. 2. Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing, 10. 3. Careri, F. (2002). Walkscapes: Walking as an aesthetic practice 4. Sitas, R. (2016). Approaching African Cities: Public-Facing Cultural Co-Production. [Contributor; Approach: Cultural Production in a Shifting Social Context. KZNSA, April/May 2016. Curator Vaughn Sadie].  

This work has been exhibited at KZNSA Gallery (2018) and is presented as a softcover book. It is a result of the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA) Open Office Research Residency, completed in April/May 2016 in Johannesburg. 


Using Format