New Life in New Doorn­fontein

New Life in New Doorn­fontein

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A new artists’ col­lec­tive has brought a dash of cre­ativ­ity to one of Jo­han­nes­burg’s in­dus­trial heart­lands.

A trip into New Doorn­fontein feels a lit­tle like a trip into the his­tory of Jo­han­nes­burg it­self. It starts with a drive through the leafy sub­urbs along Jan Smuts Av­enue, be­fore the view out­side your win­dow be­comes de­cid­edly more ur­ban – gritty, even. Sag­ging semi-de­tached houses pass, then Yeoville’s now de­crepit sy­n­a­gogue, and the peel­ing walls of the once-mag­nif­i­cent Al­ham­bra The­atre pass. Then, sud­denly, you’re in the slickly branded web around the Emi­rates Air­line Park. Pass through, and you’re in se­ri­ous in­dus­tria. It’s an un­likely venue for an artis­tic com­mu­nity, but it’s here – nearby a roof­ing sup­ply store and a ce­ment ware­house – that you’ll find El­lis House, Jo­han­nes­burg’s most re­cent home for dream­ers, thinkers and cre­ators.

The build­ing it­self is un­pre­pos­sess­ing, its squat, square struc­ture a more likely home to the re­duc­tion gear boxes that were once man­u­fac­tured here than the stud­ies in colour and form that are cur­rently in pro­duc­tion. And yet, from the bold mono­chrome mu­ral adorn­ing the en­trance hall to the light that pours in from its gi­ant win­dows, it’s clear that art has made a very happy home here.

Nonhlanhla Mahlangu, gallery man­ager at Art­eye Gallery – one of the main­stays at El­lis House – af­firms that the build­ing has the po­ten­tial to trans­form New Doorn­fontein from a worka­day grey­land of fac­to­ries into Jo­han­nes­burg’s an­swer to New York’s Wil­liams­burg. “Artists love it here be­cause it has a sense of re­mote­ness, which al­lows them to es­cape their every­day lives and rou­tines that can be­come a dis­trac­tion.” That makes it eas­ier for artists to fo­cus on their bod­ies of work while, at the same time, soak­ing in the elec­tric en­ergy that arises when you have a group of cre­ative in­di­vid­u­als in one space.

From all ap­pear­ances, Jo­han­nes­burg’s artists are ea­ger to breathe this bo­hemian air. In ad­di­tion to Art­eye, a num­ber of other gal­leries have claimed space in El­lis House. There’s Piece, for­merly a Rose­bank in­sti­tu­tion, show­cas­ing South Africa’s mag­nif­i­cent craft tra­di­tion, as well as the Dead Bunny So­ci­ety and Room Gallery.

In fact, it was through an artist that had al­ready carved a niche at El­lis House that Art­eye first came to hear of the ad­dress. Mahlangu ex­plains that the gallery’s di­rec­tor had come to visit the artist and, al­though the build­ing was at this stage in a state of dis­re­pair, im­me­di­ately fell in love with “what it could be­come”. Since Art­eye had out­grown its premises in Four­ways’ De­sign Quar­ter, Sel­mon’s dis­cov­ery seemed serendip­i­tous. And, in­deed, the gallery has grown or­gan­i­cally within its new home, to of­fer a space for artists’ res­i­den­cies, stu­dio boxes which pro­vide a work zone for artists like Juanita Frier, Thokozani Mthiyane, Do­minic Tsha­bangu and Phumzile Buthelezi, as well as an ex­hi­bi­tion space.

This, Mahlangu main­tains, is what sets El­lis House apart, and what peo­ple love about it. Yes, you can come here to buy a piece of art from an up­com­ing tal­ent, but you can also watch them while they play with their ideas on can­vas, and even sit down to a din­ner while they talk you through

their lat­est projects. In short, it’s a space where artists – and art lovers – can work, play and learn. “I think this is what makes El­lis House a suc­cess,” says Art­eye coowner Sanele Man­qele. “There are other venues that have promised vis­i­tors the chance to in­ter­act with artists, but the ex­pe­ri­ence here is au­then­tic. And who doesn’t love the chance to speak to their favourite artist and find out what they were think­ing when they cre­ated a cer­tain piece?”

El­lis House’s New Doorn­fontein ad­dress cer­tainly doesn’t hurt. In the man­ner of other Cin­derella sub­urbs – think of Braam­fontein and Mabo­neng – that have shaken off their rep­u­ta­tions as sad, bad or mad, and emerged in­stead as the kind of des­ti­na­tion fre­quented by peo­ple with beards and a fond­ness for craft beer and cof­fee, New Doorn­fontein is at­tract­ing at­ten­tion. Piece was just one north­ern sub­urbs favourite to have re­lo­cated. It was fol­lowed by Tre­viso, an old Illovo pizza-lovers’ haunt. Brian Green, the vi­sion­ary who cre­ated 44 Stan­ley’s fash­ion, food and de­sign mecca out of a grave­yard of in­dus­trial build­ings, will be ap­ply­ing his fore­sight to Vic­to­ria Yard in neigh­bour­ing Lorentzville (the so down-and­out-it’s-be­com­ing-cool suburb where, in­ci­den­tally, Nando’s still has its head­quar­ters). Rumour has it that pho­tog­ra­pher Roger Ballen will be open­ing a stu­dio here, and there will also be an am­phithe­atre for live mu­sic. The Al­ham­bra The­atre, too, is about to ex­pe­ri­ence a res­ur­rec­tion, and is set to be­come a com­mu­nity cen­tre stag­ing mu­sic, art, the­atre and dance. Next door to El­lis House, Morkel House has un­der­gone a re­vamp and is start­ing to wel­come mem­bers of the cre­ative in­dus­tries.

But don’t ex­pect New Doorn­fontein to be­come next month’s Trip Ad­vi­sor’s “most rec­om­mended”. Man­qele says that all who are in­volved in the area are keenly aware of the need to main­tain its in­tegrity, and they’ll be stern gate­keep­ers against the kind of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion that turns to­day’s “hot spot” into next year’s “been there, done that”. Af­ter all, it is – and should con­tinue to be – all about the art.

Text: Lisa Witep­ski Images © El­lis House

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