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.