To Embrace or to Contest Urban Regeneration? Ambiguities of Artistic and Social Practice in Contemporary Johannesburg

  • Fiona Siegenthaler (Author)
    University of Basel, University of Johannesburg
    Fiona Siegenthaler is Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Basel, Switzerland (since spring term 2012), and a Research Associate at the Research Centre Visual Identities in Art and Design (VIAD), University of Johannesburg. With a background in art history (MA in 2005) and social anthropology (PhD in 2012) her interest lies in the intersection of social sciences and the humanities, and contemporary visual and performative arts in particular. She has work experience in academia as well as in art galleries, art education, art criticism, and curatorial practice.


Johannesburg inner city has undergone major changes in the last twenty-five years, a process keenly observed, commented and negotiated by many local artists. The transitional years can be summarized by two phases in urban policy, the discourses of which are coined by urban ‘decay’ marked by informal practices in the first years of transition in the 1990s, and ‘urban regeneration’ when the city authorities intervened with private-public partnerships and a public art program in the 2000s. These recent interventions promise a better city but also appear to reinforce social injustice and spatial control. As an integral part of strategic gentrification, they involve artists and the art market, offering new opportunities and spaces for studios, galleries, or art commissions while extruding undesired and often illegalized residents and traders.

The reaction of artists in Johannesburg is accordingly ambivalent if not contradictory. Some try to understand the logic of informal practices and include or even support them in their art practice. This often involves opposing the increasing regulations by the city authorities and police and engaging with discriminated stakeholders. Others discover business opportunities by offering their creative, administrative and collaborative expertise for public art projects to the city administration and thus blend into the official urban policy. Finally, many artists are just residents and visitors of these neighborhoods, sometimes unintentionally benefiting from or even contributing to these developments.

I argue that as social actors, artists willingly or not participate in and shape the city even beyond their artistic practice. Therefore, their artistic intentions and their practice as ordinary urban dwellers often interfere or even converge with each other, This paper discusses two case studies of artistic interventions in the inner city of Johannesburg by Ismail Farouk and the Trinity Session and analyzes the observed ambiguities between alignment with and opposition to urban policy and its implications with regard to the role of artists as social actors in the crossfire of urban regeneration and social justice.


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Supplementary Content

Academic discipline and sub-disciplines
Contemporary Art; Johannesburg; Urban Transformation; Urban Regeneration; Public Art; Engaged Art
Contributor or sponsoring agency
Swiss National Science Foundation
Contemporary Art; Urban Transformation; Urban Regeneration; Public Art; Engaged Art