Johannesburg can feel inaccessible with its myriad of warnings about personal safety, lack of a mass transit, urban and suburban sprawl, and imposing concrete modern architecture. Unlike Cape Town, which people fall in love with handily because of its natural beauty and laid-back lifestyle, Jozi is a hardscrabble city that is always churning. If Cape Town is a watercolor, than Johannesburg is a high contrast photograph that requires an interpretive guide in order to understand that the printed image is not necessarily reality. Past Experiences founder, Jo Buitendach, is just such a guide and her Braamfontein Art Tour provides an interesting perspective of the city.
Walking graffiti and street art tours are one of my favorite ways to experience a new city because the social and political commentary expressed on the streets is often more immediate than the dated works gracing museums. This tour provides an introduction (or re-introduction for locals) to this gritty city via a free, urban outdoor gallery. Jo is an excellent ambassador for Jozi and during her tours she interprets the city and ponders the meaning of art in public spaces. What is art? What is the difference between graffiti and street art? Is it still graffiti if it isn’t done illegally? It is highly recommended and invigorating way to spend a few hours.
Our Past Experiences tour departed from the Velo Cafe in Braamfontein on a frigid July morning. We started by exploring the surrounding alleys that are no-go zones in most cities, but in Johannesburg artists (with the permission of the city) have constructed pieces in these dank and dull spaces. Jo stopped to talk about different graffiti collectives and social movement groups using Jozi’s blank walls to comment on the past and to push for a different future. We walked past political slogans, tags, murals, commissioned public art, like the massive eland by Clive van den Berg across from Wits University and giant walls that were painted during the City of Gold graffiti festival.
When visiting a city that has so many detractors, it is nice to go on a tour and hear from a local champion. For many people visiting the city, they will only see the high walls and barbed wire that grace most homes and buildings. They will be put off by the roughhewn image and won’t venture past the relative safety of their hotel rooms, but this is a mistake. Johannesburg is one of the most important cities on the African continent. It is ever expanding, changing, and remaking itself. Visitors to South Africa should spend at least a day or two exploring and peeling off one of Jozi’s many layers and a tour with Past Experiences is the perfect way to experience all this city has to offer.