Johannesburg has experienced a strong impact of urban and cultural change since the end of apartheid and the introduction of democracy in 1994. Artists have dealt differently with this urban change in their individual media and practices, sourcing from different art histories and art education traditions marked by South Africa’s apartheid history and earlier.
De-segregation, new segregations, migration, economic uncertainties, and crime are just a few of the topics which artists take up, partly replacing the resistance (and other) art of the preceding generation. But also the beauty, the unique history and the myths keep artists intrigued by the inner city of Johannesburg. The experience, examination and representation of the changes in the metropolis by contemporary artists are the center of the research project. Its guiding question is:
How do artists in Johannesburg perceive and reflect urbanity, social change, and transition in Johannesburg within their work?
To understand the reasons and the reasoning of individual artists to depict the city in the way they do and in what relationship these visual forms stand to the personal everyday experience of the city and of transition, is the aim of this thesis. It thus tries to uncover the interrelationship between existing imageries and discourses of the city, what role they play in the artists’ own perception and reflections, and the imageries they in turn produce in their artwork.
Social and political change is reflected to a considerable amount in territorial change, particularly in the inner city of Johannesburg. Social change thus implies spatial shifts, and a new formation of the visual and the visible.
Considering this spatial aspect of urban change and its influence on how it is individually and socially experienced, it would be insufficient to limit research on what images and imageries artists produce. Questions about their own position in this social context of transition arise. Where are the artists, what do they know about the city, and what discourses do they perceive and reproduce? What relation do they have to the city in terms of spatial practices, modes of commuting through the city, in terms of social networks and location of their home or studio? What narrations and discourses underlie their works, and what moments in their biographies made the artists deal with Johannesburg?
Social transformation, spatial reshuffling, and ensuing new visibilities and invisibilities have all had an impact on the artists’ perceptions of the city of Johannesburg and receive particular attention in this PhD project. The thesis does not only contribute to a deeper understanding of the visual expression and artistic practices in and about contemporary Johannesburg. It also attempts to offer an insight in how still today, in the post-apartheid era – albeit in new forms –, spatial practices shape imageries and discourses and vice versa. The focus lies on a specific city, Johannesburg, in a particular moment in time. However, aspects like contested public space, migration, the formation of new identities and the circulation of local, national and global aesthetics, markets and art histories are common to all major transforming cities worldwide.
Underlying my research question and my approach to the artistic practices in transitional Johannesburg is my conviction that it needs interdisciplinary methods in order to understand art produced within a transforming society in its complexity. The approach is thus based on a combination of perspectives and methods from art history and anthropology, meeting in the recent discussion of visual culture as an interdisciplinary field of scholarly enquiry. A selection of artistic positions dealing with urban and social change covers different media like painting, photography, performance and more, and thus provides for a concept of diverse, historically influenced “art histories” as well as a perspective on differing notions of public space in a transitional city and its role in the artists’ agency. Crucial aspects are the artist's topics, visual interpretations and strategies specifically in terms of a contemporary urban space and its intrinsic potential of change.
By bringing together the three aspects of social transformation, spatial practices and new formations of the visual and visibility in particular, I emphasize the interdependency of firstly the transitional social and political context, secondly the imageries produced from this context, and thirdly the everyday spatial practice and perception of the artists. Research results show that while most of the artists adopt art strategies and genres typical to the education they enjoyed – which in turn still is marked by the legacy of the racist apartheid education system –, their perception of the city is shaped by their individual interaction with the urban and social spaces of Johannesburg rather than by their racial or ethnic identity.

Project Period



Prof. Dr. Till Förster, Prof. Dr. Philip Ursprung


Swiss National Foundation, Freie Akademische Gesellschaft (FAG), Reisefonds der Universität Basel