New Life in New Doornfontein
New Life in New Doornfontein
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.