24 November 18

3PM at Johannesburg Art Gallery

Plant Music: A sonic experience by Mphati “Music Please” Motha


1 December 18

1PM at Johannesburg Art Gallery

Mam'Smangele Siko and others: A discussion on community organising, food security and generations of Soweto Gardening

Installation view. by RMK

Installation view. by RMK

Using the black urban experience as our primary departure point has, over the last 10 years, brought MYL to explore popular education spaces (Sermon on the Train, 2009 - 2011), collaborative infrastructures (Gazart 2009 – 2013), knowledge dissemination systems and oral histories (Extra Extra 2013, Non-Monuments Programme 2012 – present), and Black Love as Knowledge space (Corner Loving, 2014 – present). In all these projects, we have looked to everyday black urban lifehood and relationality to model ways of practicing and being. These ways of practicing and being are often overlooked, considered ‘informal’, or have simply had limited rigorous engagement – particularly within the formal houses of knowledge production. However, they have the potential to bring acute insight and a very different perspective to key issues – new knowledges for emergent challenges.

Working from a similar strategy, we would like to consider what black, urban relationships to plant life might tell us about the Johannesburg Art Gallery. To do this, we consider histories of black urban gardening in Johannesburg.

We wish to look at black urban gardening in the form of domestic, township based gardening with specific focus on the ornamental, though food and medicinal gardens form part of this too. Our interest is in the ornamental domestic garden largely because there remains very little engagement with the recreational, leisure-based practice – despite the ubiquity of ornamental gardens in black urban yards. Rather black gardening is largely framed within ideas of alienated labour within the white suburban garden, Bantu Education’s focus on this kind of vocational gardening, or at best, food security and urban farming. Within academic, popular and artistic discourses, the practice of black urban gardening in South African townships remains significantly limited. And yet, through photographic archives in particular, it becomes evident that black urban gardening is as old as townships themselves. And so, the development of black urban subjects is coterminous with the development of black urban gardening.

The evident histories of the black urban garden have the potential to serve as reclaim, as demand of landedness, as domestic authority, as belonging making, as refuge and as radical possession of time.


To acknowledge, but put aside, the forced and problematic relationships of urban black life to gardening, is to take back the practice and labour of working the land. Importantly, this is a reclaim of relationship to the land within the framework of urbanism and modernity, and to consider the lifehood of black subjects in multivalent identities of the urban and (rather than instead of) the ‘natural’.

Declaration of landedness/situatedness

To garden is to make significant investment of time and resources into a single situated space. To do so, is to invest in sedentary, permanent inhabitance. In a city such as Johannesburg and the legacies of forced removal and ideas that black subjects did not belong in urban spaces, to invest in the garden is to claim landedness and situatedness that echoes the historical refrain “We Will Not Move”.

Belonging Making and Domestic authority

Relatedly, the act of gardening against precariousness, is equally an act of making home, making a place of pleasure and affective experience. The domain of the home is a space in which people have been able to shape and exert direct influence on their lives within complex structures that have systematically dispossessed urban black residents of such authority. Gardening then functions as part of long-term improvement efforts and as a means of counteracting the physical and monotonous layout of Apartheid State housing, in order to achieve a sense of individuality.


Homeness, and intimacy too enable the idea of the refuge. Refuge and sanctuary exist both within the experience of enjoying the garden itself, but also in the act of gardening as meditative and as ritualistic. The creation of the place of refuge is also the act of self-protection, of self-care and of rejuvenation.

Radical possession of time

To garden is also to claim time and to stretch time, domestic gardening time is one’s own time. In the relationship of time to labour, gardening creates a time that belongs to the self, rather than a mechanized time of alienated industrial work, of clocking in and clocking out. The time of gardening is natural time, is seasonal time and time is represented in the life stages of nature. This is elongated time, a malleable and process based time, in stark contrast to the time-control of black urban life within the apartheid and neoliberal mine, factory or construction site.

We are therefore interested in thinking through gardening, in order to reimagine the life of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG). As a building birthed from the ambitions of rand lords, with a foundational collection from Rodin to Goya to Duchamp, and a colonial architectural inheritance, its contemporary life exists in a very different paradigm – of Joubert park, and limited city funding, a crumbling building and an increasingly isolated public. What potential does JAG, and its potential ruination, have in enabling a context specific, relevant and vital space for a black visitor base? What do histories and practice of urban black gardening potentially point to? In what ways can black gardening be modelled to test a Johannesburg Art Gallery of reclaim, domestic authority, belonging making, refuge, space and time?

Young People’s planting programme with local students at Ejaradini with Sun Mabengeza and Colin Groenewald

Young People’s planting programme with local students at Ejaradini with Sun Mabengeza and Colin Groenewald