August House is Dead, Long Live August House! The Story of a Johannesburg Atelier, published by FourthWall Books, is a fascinating study of the role of the atelier and its artists in South Africa’s fractious art world, and a consideration of the relationship between art and the ever-changing city of Johannesburg.
With the title due for release later this month, Gurney talks to UrbanAfrica about her personal relationship with the building, the city and the genesis of the book.
UA: When was the first time you visited August House, and why?
Gurney: I first came to August House, a building on End Street in Doornfontein, in 2007. I had just moved to Johannesburg and was invited there by another artist, to share studio space. I left August House six years later, in 2013. I decided soon after departing to write about the building’s remarkable life. Shortly after my research began, August House was earmarked for sale. My research set out to track the making of new work from four different studios in this artistic hub, and to follow where these artworks went as they made their way beyond the studio door. Due to the disruption of the building’s sale, a process that took about 18 months to finalise, the storyline also tracked the artists’ journeys to new studios and ends with the reconfigured fate of the building itself.
UA: Can you recall your first impression of the space and the place?
Gurney: Yes, the building makes a lasting impression – partly because it looks so unremarkable on the outside. The first studio I visited was an unforgettable experience – like going down the proverbial rabbit hole into another dimension where all sorts of things suddenly become possible. The double doors opened into a voluminous open plan space, literally covered with artworks complete and in progress, a private collection of over 3 000 works, thousands of books, artefacts waiting for transfiguration, a sleep space and a kitchen that looked like an art installation. That particular studio on the top floor belonged to Gordon Froud and Jacki McInnes, and also became my first August House workspace for a time. It connected to the rooftop, which also afforded spectacular views over the city.
UA: Tell us more about your time at August House.
Gurney: I worked there for six years – in three different studios – and lived there for about two years.
Living there was different to working there; I became embedded into inner city dynamics and realities as a resident, for better and worse. The rhythms of the building and its immediate precinct were also different according to day or night, week or weekend. The neighbourhood conditions reflected the material realities of a diverse working class population doing what they could to get by. This included an increasingly dilapidated building opposite, which played a role in the fate of August House. The precinct was a paradoxical mix of stasis and flux that imbued to different extents the work that emerged from within the building’s walls.
Who were some of the original cohort of artists who inhabited the building? Are any of them still there?
Gurney: Many tenants, artistic and otherwise, passed through the building in its first incarnation (2006-2015) following its conversion by Bié Venter and Maria Svane from a factory into studio lofts. Some of South Africa’s best known talents are on that list: Diane Victor, Mary Sibande, Nicholas Hlobo, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, Mohau Modisakeng, Dineo Bopape and more. Well regarded collectives like the (now defunct) Center for Historical Re-enactments, co-founded by Gabi Ngcobo, operated from August House and so did the Joubert Park Project, which had a residency space there for international collaborations. A fine art courier company operated from August House, and an exhibition installation company. There was also a cut-and-trim factory – a legacy from the building’s past as a textiles factory, born around 1946. Other kinds of tenants included filmmakers, a fashion designer, musicians, an advocate and a trucking business.
Two artists from the original collective, Diane Victor and Nelson Makamo, are still there. They are the only two who did not move during the ghosting of the building between owners. Once it switched hands in 2015, the new buyer, who happens to also be an art collector, decided to keep August House operating as a collection of independent studios. This was against the odds of neighbourhood residential conversions. A new collective has since moved in and taken August House into its second life as an atelier.
UA: What do you think the relationship is between such collective spaces of creative production and the city?
Gurney: On a practical level, artists are often the pioneers of placemaking – they find new areas to settle in, which have large workspaces available cheaply, and these spaces are often marginal or marginalised in some way. Their practice and related ‘ways of doing’ generally attract other city-makers over time. In this well-rehearsed scenario, artists canend up at the sharp end of these dynamics as they are consequently priced out and the relocation cycle starts anew. This oft observed pattern begs new structural solutions towards sustainability. In this storyline, how the artists variously coped with uncertainty is key. And their strategies, or artistic thinking, generally embodied more collective forms of networked collaboration.
This project was made possible with the support of the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities (ACC) and the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO). GCRO is a partnership between the University of Johannesburg, the University of the Witwatersrand, the Gauteng Provincial Government and organised local government in Gauteng.
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