Capital of Cool

Johannesburg is shedding its painful, crime-ridden past to emerge as Africa’s hippest hub for art, music, and fashion. Tim Murphy takes to its streets.

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From left: Sibu “FDB” Sithole, of the Smarteez crew; Neighbourgoods Market at 73 Juta Street in Braamfontein.

Capital of Cool

Johannesburg is shedding its painful, crime-ridden past to emerge as Africa’s hippest hub for art, music, and fashion. Tim Murphy takes to its streets.

Gratitude Fisher and Phumza Mankayi were rocking their doeks—traditional South African head scarves—in ways their mothers and grandmothers never imagined: twisted and tucked à la Erykah Badu and Rosie the Riveter. Moreover, they were wearing them with thick, Urkel-style hipster glasses, oversize blazers with buttons pinned up the lapels, and prepster V-neck tennis sweaters. On this cold Monday night in June—the middle of Johannesburg’s winter—they were having a smoke outside Main Street Life, a seventies-era warehouse. Ten years ago, those who valued their safety would not go anywhere near downtown Johannesburg.

All around there were young people similarly decked out. Inside, a chunky black local rapper named Tumi, backed on keyboards by a skinny Afrikaner white boy named Peach, told the crowd to face down bling-bling hip-hoppers who used “hater” words like “bitches.” The scene definitely did not suggest the crime-racked, no-man’s-land ­Johannesburg that has grabbed its fair share of global headlines since apartheid ended in 1994. It felt more like Brooklyn’s hipster planet of Bushwick, if most of the cool kids were black and the white kids were the sprinkles, rather than the reverse.

Fisher is a poet, dancer, and jewelry designer. Mankayi is a poet and writer. The two friends—part of the South African generation known as “born-frees,” with birthdays right before or after apartheid’s demise—are starting a group to counsel teenage girls, in a country where the gulf between wealth and poverty is still massive and rates of both tween pregnancy and HIV among pregnant women are alarmingly high. The broader goal they share with many of their peers there is to put gritty Johannesburg on the map as one of the coolest cities in the world.

“We’re here to bring it!” Fisher exclaimed.

“But not just to be the next New York,” Mankayi added. “We want to keep the township vibe of ubuntu: humanity, humility, collectivism. We’re trying to find a balance between where we come from and what we want to be.”

Johannesburg right now—a place of about 4 ­million—feels like a hectic, history-scarred city full of hustle and optimism that’s brashly shouldering its way into the global arena. At the same time, it’s remaining intensely African, bursting with immigrants from all over the continent in a way that ­Cape Town, South Africa’s post-colonial tourism darling, simply is not. “People in Cape Town love to say, ‘Oh, isn’t it sooo European here?’ ” said Nellie Bowles, 24, an American writer living there. “Jo’burg is just being itself, which makes it sexy and cool.” Milisuthando Bongela, who writes the blog Miss Milli B and co-owns Mememe, a clothing boutique that sells local ­labels, put it this way: “I can still be the only black person in a restaurant in Cape Town. Whereas in Jo’burg, people like me own the restaurants.”

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A dress by local designer Tiaan Nagel.

It’s not that crime has disappeared, though it has lessened since the city hosted the 2010 World Cup. And it’s not that the architecture is getting prettier—the urban core is mostly a generic expanse of fading seventies buildings that feels a bit like downtown Los Angeles. The leafy affluent neighborhoods can be equally depressing, with fortresslike homes hidden behind massive cement walls and electronic gates manned by private guards. For the most part, one does not feel particularly safe walking.

But despite its liabilities, Johannesburg seems to be having a moment—or at least the start of one. First came international attention during the World Cup, which sparked the opening of a (very limited) subway line. Around that time, a local rap-rave duo named Die Antwoord (Afrikaans for “the answer”) exploded on the Internet with a wild sped-up sound and an aesthetic that cleverly exploited the mullet-haired, gap-toothed tattoo-trash look of the country’s poor whites as well as the mixed-raced “coloreds.” Meanwhile, in the city’s urban center, in neighborhoods that had been dodgy dead zones since the apartheid era, new creative life began emerging. For example, there was the revival of Braamfontein, a university district that houses, in a funky modernist tower with a flying-­saucer roof, the newly opened Wits Art Museum with its ­eye-popping mashup of traditional and contemporary African art. On nearby Juta Street, the ­Co-Op gallery features the minimalist furniture of the young couple that goes by Dokter and Misses, in addition to works by the 31-year-old artist Kudzanai ­Chiurai, whose images of local black male celebrities done up in the flashy bling worn by African dictators recall the work of Kehinde ­Wiley. “This city has allowed me to express myself,” said Chiurai, a Zimbabwean living here in exile ­after he made art that was critical of the Mugabe government. His work was shown in an exhibition of South African prints last year at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

In nearby Milpark, at 44 Stanley—a former factory that is filled with restaurants, cafés, and shops—local designer Tiaan Nagel has a women’s boutique selling simple monochrome pieces that offer a respite from the flash that afflicts so much African fashion. “I try to give the local market a middle ground between High Street and Dries Van Noten,” said the baby-faced, ­bespectacled Nagel. “We’ve got Zara now, and we might be getting ­Topshop. So people are starting to understand contemporary fashion more. We once only had wedding-dress makers.”

But back in the true urban core—the area around the Main Street Life ­building—you can see that it’s possible to carve a multiracial creative-class utopia out of postindustrial blight. The neighborhood, ­rebranded Maboneng (“place of light” in Sotho, one of South Africa’s 11 ­official languages), is the brainchild of Jonathan Liebmann, 29, a cocky, good-looking “randlord” (South African slang for entrepreneur). In recent years, Liebmann, with a silent partner, has bought about 20 buildings and is slowly but surely turning the area into a mixed-use district, complete with loft units, a hotel, a performance space, and countless ­cafés and shops. It is here that the city’s young cultural universes cross paths—Tshepang Ramoba, the dreadlocked drummer for the local Afro-indie darlings BLK JKS (pronounced black jacks), saunters by the Chalkboard Collaboration Café with Floyd Avenue from the Smarteez, a group of friends from the nearby former township of Soweto who have attained local fame and an international cult fashion following for their whimsical, multi-hued getups.

Gratitude Fisher and Phumza Mankayi

Poets Gratitude Fisher (left) and Phumza Mankayi

Liebmann owes much of the cachet of Maboneng to the fact that, five years ago, he offered William ­Kentridge, the country’s best-known artist, a massive studio in the complex. On a recent afternoon, Kentridge, 57, famous for his black and white animated films that explore the legacy of apartheid with dreamlike expressionism, explained that his recent work was deeply tied to the making of art in chaotic central Johannesburg. “There’s a recycling depot two blocks from here,” ­Kentridge said. “I’ll see someone pushing the body of a motorcar on a trolley, or a man in a suit and tie wearing a goatskin skirt. Jo’burg is calamitous and fantastic at the same time. There’s a base level of anxiety here that makes New York feel like a quiet garden.” He said he wasn’t worried that the city, despite all its current artistic rebirth, would truly gentrify anytime soon. “We don’t have the money to become a Bilbao or a Mitte.”

Kentridge isn’t the only one whose work is fed by the boldly African vibe of the city. The designer Anisa Mpungwe, 28, who has just opened a store in the Maboneng area for her label, Loin Cloth & Ashes, fashions A-line dresses and shifts out of vibrant-print fabrics from surrounding countries. She once designed in more Western-minded gray-tone monochromes. “I felt like I had to prove myself and not be a typical African,” Mpungwe said. “But I was running away from my roots.” Since she turned back to regional fabrics, she’s found success. “I feel like I hit the link between Africa and the West.”

That connection has also provided a sweet spot for artist Nandipha Mntambo, 29, who has gained attention at home and abroad with sculptures she makes from cowhide, casting them into provocative human forms. Born in Swaziland, ­Mntambo is unself-consciously African enough to admit that the idea of using cowhide came to her in a dream—much as it might, she points out, to a sangoma, or traditional healer. But she insists her work is not about exploring African-ness via the all-important cow. “It’s about attraction and repulsion,” she said one afternoon at the Stevenson gallery, which represents her. “About how we understand space and form, sex, light, and shadow.”

Of course, in a democracy as young as South Africa’s, where past racial wounds are still raw, artistic imagery can be volatile. The Goodman Gallery, one of Johannesburg’s most prestigious, learned as much this spring when it exhibited a show by Brett Murray, a white South African whose earlier work criticized apartheid. This time around, though, Murray’s show, “Hail to the Thief II,” clearly berated the African National Congress (ANC), the current ruling black political party. The ANC is widely seen as having been heroic during the apartheid years but is now viewed by much of the country, especially the educated middle class, as rife with corruption and ineptitude.

The show was loaded with flashy gold-plate sculptures and signage with slogans like we demand chivas, bmws, and bribes. But the piece that ignited a national uproar was The Spear: a portrait of the country’s black president, Jacob Zuma, styled like a famous poster of Lenin—but with Zuma’s penis hanging out of his fly. (The image referenced the fact that Zuma, who has four wives per his Zulu tradition, was tried for rape in 2006; the charges were dismissed.) Once the ANC got wind of the ­portrait, it filed a lawsuit demanding its removal. The gallery, arguing free expression, refused. Drama ensued, with the ANC rallying protesters outside the gallery. Then one day, in what appeared to many as an ­orchestrated incident, two men—one white and one black—defaced the portrait before being dragged away by police.

Finally, gallery owner Liza Essers, who is white, took the painting down. “I was afraid the place was going to be burned down if I didn’t,” she said on a recent afternoon in her office, surrounded by sculptures by Kentridge, a Goodman artist. Essers and ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu held a press conference in the gallery to publicly turn the page. “I had no idea that the painting was going to be so controversial,” she said, adding that she would still mount the work if she had to do it over. She also said she felt that the ANC, trying to shore up support amid increased public disgust, had used the Spear affair “as a political football.”

Such are the confusing fault lines running beneath the city’s creative scene that it can often feel like a joyous post-­racial melting pot. “We’re an 18-year-old democracy, and we’re behaving, naturally, like a teenager a lot of the time,” said Dion Chang, a former fashion-magazine editor who now runs a trend-forecasting agency. The black middle class in the city has rapidly expanded, while a small black elite, ­often connected to the ANC and referred to as “black diamonds,” has also emerged, eager to show off its wealth. But huge numbers of people in the country, which is 80 percent black, still live in poverty.

This class schizophrenia has bred some bizarre phenomena, such as a local pastime in which young people parade their brand-name clothes and sneakers before one another, then boastfully burn the items—sometimes they even burn cash. But a less extreme form of showmanship is the rise of street-fashion crews that pay homage to the long-standing local tradition of men competing for cash prizes over who wears the swankiest suit.

Thus far, the best-known of Johannesburg’s many fashion crews is the Smarteez, so named because its members make dressing “smart” look “easy,” and also because they wear bright colors that evoke Smarties candies (the English equivalent of M&M’s)—colorful on the outside, black inside. On a recent afternoon in Soweto, with the acrid smell of petrol in the air, about 10 of the Smarteez (three of them women) gathered in the one-room studio they rent amid a sea of modest cinder-block homes. This space serves as both their clubhouse and HQ for a clothing line they’ve started featuring items like men’s Nehru-collar paisley shirts and slim-fitting suits.

When the Smarteez first formed a few years ago, its ­members quickly made their mark with a skinny-legged hipster silhouette punctuated with bright colors and bold fabrics. Today, their look seems to have evolved into something a bit more conventional and store-ready. That is, with the exception of motormouthed Sibu “FDB” Sithole, clearly the group kook, who on this afternoon rocked a military cap, multicolored Ray-Bans, a tight white T-shirt with a rainbow splayed across it, and about 12 pounds of jewelry. “I’m bored with Jo’burg,” Sithole declared at one point. “Everything we’re seeing around town now, we were doing five years ago—like the skinny jeans. I want to go to New York! To Kenya!”

One of the women, Pule Nchabeleng, her cornrows pulled back under a black headband, jumped in to put the group in context: “We don’t need to wear some cultural African print to be African—because everything we do is African by default. We’re dressing for our own generation.”

Other style crews around town seemed to echo the notion that the born-free generation isn’t bound to looks that read African to Western eyes. Take the three young men who do the style blog I See a Different You, who favor sixties-style mod suits. They aim to show their country through an unexpected lens—one you could basically call Mr. Porter Goes to Africa. “We don’t want Jo’burg to look like Brooklyn or Berlin,” says member Justice Mukheli, who along with his two cofounders works at a big advertising firm.

This kind of pride was well on display one night at ­ Kitchener’s, a Braamfontein old-school bar–turned–cool-kid hangout, where seven members of the dance crew Vintage crammed into a booth. Their leader, the effervescently androgynous Lee-Ché Janecke, 21, his dyed-tangerine curls tumbling in his face and his navy blazer worn boxy over print short-shorts, explained their name: “We’re so on the cusp that when we look back on it all, we’ll be vintage.” The kids of Vintage, who live in townships scattered around the city center, have attained a measure of local fame thanks to spots on various TV dance shows, but they’re still scraping by with little money. They travel, like most of the city’s poor, via overcrowded “taxi” buses. When all else fails, they walk. And that can be dangerous.

Which explains what happened next. The Vintage crew stepped out of Kitchener’s and headed to a nearby public square to demonstrate some of their dance moves. But Janecke, usually so exuberant, stood still, looking oddly uncomfortable. “He got stabbed last night,” one of the other kids said, earning an annoyed glance of betrayal from Janecke. Sure enough, ­Janecke had been walking over the iconic Nelson Mandela Bridge when he was held up; he resisted and was stabbed a number of times. The stitches were making it hard for him to move his upper body.

“Don’t move, just strike a pose, and we’ll dance around you,” one of the Vintage kids said. So Janecke did just that, ­remaining fierce and fabulous and proud despite the pain, and that is how the evening, just like the city in which it took place, moved forward.

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