8. Johannesburg My City

Mixed media : Calico, embroidery silk thread, cotton, acrylic paint, machine embroidery, medical bandage, wooden board

The Johannesburg skyline has always entranced and thrilled me, since I was a tiny girl. It held the imprint and infusion of my mother’s memory, which was the story of escape from the poverty and constriction of her life growing up in Pretoria. Her victory was to get a job as an air hostess in the early 1960’s, and she shared a flat in Hillbrow with a woman who would be her lifelong best friend.

With my mother, as children, we would make the pilgrimage from our suburban East Rand home to the city of Johannesburg by train, walking up the hill to Hillbrow, to window shop and have tea at the famous Florian or Café Wien. As a teenager I was mesmerised by this place that broke all the rules : it became racially mixed, there were nightclubs, live music, flamboyant people in drag and people reeling on the edges of the pavements on drugs. Bright lights, big city.

In my twenties democracy bloomed, and the flats that housed my aunties and uncles now housed people from Francophone and other parts of Africa. Then the world’s mafias made South Africa home, and South Africa’s wounds festered, and Johanneburg became a terrifying place of retribution and desperation. After a couple of attacks on my person, I fled north to Zambia, and then east to Australia.

When I came back, my beloved city had slipped from my hands. I had been away for 12 years, and had lost the rhythm of the growth of a place. My friends who had remained mostly knew how to live around the violence, which has now become part of the city’s personality.

When I visit the city now, I can easily tap into her spirit, which is highly energised, excitable, naughty, and loves beauty. There are places on the koppies on Linksfield ridge and in Kensington and Troyeville which hold the natural and spiritual history of the place, where, albeit somewhat gnarled and occasionally bedraggled, nature reaches skyward through the red, rocky soil. I immediately connect to that lifelong thrill of my sweetheart and dirty old lover, Johannesburg, when I put my feet on those places.