Art in the Forest

WORDS Graham Wood IMAGES JCAF / Graham de Lacy

With its opening delayed by lockdown, the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation in Forest Town is very much worth a visit, both to view its innovative first exhibition and for a spot of architectural stimulation.

The launch of the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF) may have been delayed by lockdown, but there was something prescient about its up-to-the-minute online booking system and by-appointment approach that brilliantly facilitate pandemic protocols. And the foundation’s “slow art” perspective means the first exhibition will run until the end of January 2021, so there’s time to get there.

Because businessmen and art collectors Gordon Schachat and Adi Enthoven (later joined by former MTN chairman Phuthuma Nhleko) are behind the foundation, you might have expected something similar to the recent spate of large-scale private museums that have opened locally, with individual collections at their heart – such as Zeitz, Norval and Javett. But the JCAF is emphatically not a vehicle for a private collection. (Schachat and Enthoven are partners in a separate entity, the Southern Collection, with more than 200 works, which is currently housed in an industrial building in the Joburg CBD.)

JCAF executive director Clive Kellner explains that the JCAF follows another model altogether: a new kind of “hybrid institution”. “It’s not commercial,” he says. “It’s not a museum.” It will host one exhibition per year, and for the rest will focus on academic research, technology and the production of knowledge. According to a briefing document, it also aims to play a role in globalising contemporary South African art. “We programme according to a specific theme, and our first theme is ‘Female Identities in the Global South’,” says Clive. “That will run for three years.” The current exhibition deals with “Contemporary Female Identities”; two more on “Liminal Identities” and “Modernist Female Identities” will follow. The exhibition is small, but potent – and definitely worth seeing in person.

The foundation building itself is fascinating. It’s a former tram shed – Joburg had a system of electric trams in the first half of the 20th century – that was later used as an electrical substation. Its current incarnation is the work of StudioMAS, the architects responsible for Circa in Rosebank and the new Council Chamber in Braamfontein.

The “tram shed” is essentially a red-brick industrial box – a solid, functional building with very few windows, which, says lead architect Pierre Swanepoel of StudioMAS, makes it more suitable for an art institution than any other kind of use. Most others would have necessitated much more substantial alterations. One or two similar (but smaller) buildings have been added to the plot.

“We felt it was better to preserve the building in its entirety,” says Pierre. Industrial buildings, he adds, “seem to be something art loves: you can appropriate these spaces with big volumes, and there’s something in the walls that makes them special.” A lot of effort went into cleaning and refurbishing; the building was also insulated, and all the mod cons necessary to make a world-class environment for art, from UV glass to humidity control, sophisticated lighting and IT, were introduced.

But because it was essentially a “box” already, Pierre says, it wasn’t necessary to “hack it or Frankenstein it”. All they added was a glass link to connect the buildings. The system of tunnels underneath, originally used for cabling, proved useful for the infrastructure, including water, electronics, security, gas cylinders for the firesuppression systems, as well as the air conditioners.

One of the few additions is a sculptural steel canopy that delineates the tracks where the trams would have been rolled in. As well as introducing a bit of a heritage narrative, the canopy subtly and politely invites you in, guiding you via the courtyards to the entrance and reception area. The industrial typology is humanised without being altered, while subtly communicating that something happened to this building to make it different.

Any new addition, Pierre points out, “doesn’t touch the building”. Modern elements are slightly offset, so you can read the difference between new and old. There’s even a shadow-line around the edge of the new terrazzo floor.

The canopy also gradually closes off outside distractions, calming you and focusing your senses. “It’s important to calm people down a bit as you guide them from the street into the building, and make them start to think differently [in preparation for the] journey they’re going to take, which is mostly a mental one,” Pierre says.

Perhaps the last point to make is that, although the JCAF building doesn’t disrupt the residential nature of its address (because its under-the-radar identity prevents it from being as catalytic a project as Circa was), it does hold potential to subtly transform the nature of residential life around it. In a suburban setting, with typically high walls protecting a largely isolated existence behind them, the JCAF – in combination with the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre and the nearly complete Roger Ballen Centre for Photographic Arts, all within walking distance of one another – might just start to reinvigorate some of the public life of the area.