Public Art

The City of Johannesburg’s public art projects in Newtown and surrounds

"Public Art provides a means of celebrating Johannesburg’s unique culture, diverse communities and rich history. It offers shared symbols which build social cohesion, contribute to civic pride and help forge a positive identity for the city. Through this art, the City projects its collective identity and vision, while individuals and community groups in neighbourhoods are also empowered to express their unique identities. Public art supports the creative industries, creating opportunities for artists, designers and fabricators. Further, public art acts as a catalyst for development and economic growth through raising confidence, attracting visitors and stimulating investment." (City of Joburg, Public Art Policy document, 2003)

The City went on to recognise the cultural diversity of Johannesburg’s population, and incorporated this in all aspects of the Johannesburg Art in Public Places Programme. Promoting diversity included:

  • commissioning artworks throughout Johannesburg’s neighbourhoods
  • ensuring representation of Johannesburg’s multi-cultural community among selection panels and artists selected for commissions
  • acquiring artworks in a wide variety of styles and media
  • encouraging new art forms as well as established and traditional forms of art

Nowhere has the City’s public art programme been more visible than in Newtown and the surrounding areas. In the space of a few years, a diverse range of artists have been commissioned to create artworks for public spaces through an open tender process. Those selected have ranged from very famous artists such as William Kentridge to some who have never before had the opportunity to make art for a public space.

Besides the large sculptural pieces of art that are described here, the city also has some 65 artworks in total decorating its buildings.

Wooden Heads

The 560 carved wooden heads dotted on plinths throughout the Newtown precinct reflect a sea of faces from Africa. The artists, Simon Guambe, Petrus Matsolo, Dan Guambe and Joe Matola, intended these heads to reflect African diversity. They symbolise how for the better part of the last century, Newtown was home to thousands of migrants from throughout Africa and the world.

Banner of Hope

The Bannner of Hope steel sculpture of the South African flag stands approximately three storeys high and 7 meters wide on a concrete plinth in front of the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre. The facets of the flag have been twisted and creatively re-arranged. The sculpture was a gift from the people of the Netherlands and was unveiled on the occasion of the opening of Radio Freedom at the Institute of Broadcast Journalism on 22 September 1995. Radio Freedom was the African National Congress’s radio station that was banned throughout the apartheid years. Activists in the townships used to huddle around their radios to tune into the station and listen to the voices of their leaders in exile. The sculpture was intended to honour of the ‘right to freedom of expression that had, at the time, just been enshrined in the interim Constitution of South Africa.

Kippie ‘Morolong’ Moeketsi

Kippie ‘Morolong’ Moeketsi (1925-1983)


A life-size bronze sculpture of legendary musician Kippie Moeketsi was unveiled outside the renovated venue of the same name in the Market Theatre Precinct in August 2009. The sculpture, by artists Guy du Toit and Egon Tania, is an emotional work that celebrates the life and brilliant work of Kippie whilst resonating with a melancholy for which he was also known.

The story goes that when playing bebop, Kippie's fingers ran along his saxaphone like rolling stones, which is how he acquired the nickname 'Morolong'.

Kippie Moeketsi was one of the great figures of South African jazz; a sensitive, brilliant musician, a dedicated teacher and an outspoken critic. But there was also a flip side; Kippie was a hard living alcoholic, depressive and moody, a troublemaker, a lost soul who died penniless and alone. The intensity he brought to his music he also brought to his daily existence. Born into poverty, he was destined to forge an existence among apartheid’s downtrodden, were it not for the fact that he came from a family of musicians. The day he picked up his brother’s clarinet at the age of twenty was the day his destiny revealed itself. He changed the course not only of his own life, but that of South African township jazz.

According to Kate Shand of the Newtown Management District, "The sculpture now situated outside the Kippie’s venue is a detailed and painterly portrait of the man and his instrument, seated on an ordinary kitchen chair with another next to him waiting for passers by interested in a photo opportunity or for fellow musicians who’d still like to imagine what it felt like to play alongside the great man. We are hugely grateful to all the partners on this project, the Gauteng Department of Recreation, Sports, Arts, Culture and Heritage, the City of Johannesburg and the Johannesburg Development Agency, for working together to make sure this important work has been realised in public space in our district. The piece makes a great new contribution to our public art offering and will ensure that many people who visit the area learn about Kippie and his legendary influence on South African jazz."

Brenda Fassie

The Brenda Fassie sculpture, created by artist Angus Taylor, is a 1570-metre life-size bronze that stands outside the Bassline music venue. It was installed in March 2006 and was the first of 40 sculptures commissioned by the Sunday Times newspaper in celebration of its 100th birthday. The sculpture features Brenda sitting on a stool behind a microphone standing on the ground. The text superimposed on Fassie’s body is made up of quotes by the artist on her relationship with the media. The empty stool by her side invites passers-by to take their seat next to this music legend.

This black plaque, one of which appears at the base of each sculpture belonging to the Sunday Times heritage project, provides a brief summary of Brenda Fassie’s life. It reads: “Brenda Fassie, known as the Madonna of the townships, was one of Africa’s biggest home-grown stars, South Africa’s top-selling local artist and what her record company EMI called ‘a once-in-a-generation artist, a true idol’. But for most she was MaBrrr or simply Brenda, a phenomenon like no other. As Brenda once said while talking to fans on Umhlobo Wenene FM, ‘I will always be this way.’” To find out more about this story go to

A pop diva, Brenda Fassie’s 1998 ‘come back’ album Memeza sold 50 000 units in the first four hours of its release and, ultimately, more than 600 000 copies. Four of her albums, Amadlozi (1999), Nomakanjani (2000), Mina Nawe (2001) and Mali (2003) were the biggest selling albums of the year. In the last eight years of her life she earned R6-million in royalties alone.

While some music purists dismissed Brenda’s brand as ‘bubblegum’, multitudes of young fans voted with their feet. Yet Fassie was often broke.

Born in Langa, Cape Town, Brenda started singing with a neighbourhood band called The Tiny Tots at age five. At 17 producer and talent scout Koloi Lebona brought her to Joburg where she went to Gibson Kente's music and drama school in Soweto.

Singing with the band Brenda & the Big Dudes, she cut her first single Weekend Special and became an overnight sensation – a starry night that lasted 20 years. Unpredictable, volatile, passionate, Brenda had a love-hate relationship with the media, which documented all her highs and lows, of which there were many.

"I am a shocker. I like to create controversy. It's my trademark," she said, as well as "I'm going to become the Pope next year. Nothing is impossible!" It was said that Brenda "had a raw, animal magnetism that made her irresistible to men and women".

To quote the diva herself: "You know what, at the next OKTV Awards I wanna go there just in my jacket with nothing else on. I loved it when Madonna did that. I thought wow, woman, you are me... Madonna in Soweto." On another occasion, however, she said she didn't understand why people compared her with Madonna. "Maybe it's because of the way we dress."

When she married for the first and only time - Nhlanhla Mbambo, a millionaire's son from Durban in 1989 - there were three receptions. Only close friends were invited to the one at the Sandton Sun Hotel in Joburg. To avoid gatecrashers at her Cape Town wedding held in Parow, computerised invites, with a secret watermark, were printed. One thousand people pitched at the church, standing on pews, hanging over the pulpit and forming a solid mass at the altar. The priest said he had officiated at many weddings "but never have I experienced anything like this. I may be bruised, battered and bewildered, but it was wonderful." It took Brenda the bride 30 minutes to walk from the car - a black Cadillac with tinted windows - to the altar as TV crews and photographers jostled to capture her. Her dress had a four-metre train and Yvonne Chaka Chaka was her chief bridesmaid. Police had to be called to restore order among the fans.

More than 18 000 people packed the KwaMashu Stadium for her Durban wedding, where Brenda and her groom arrived by helicopter. She wore a different designer gown to each wedding.

Visitors to her hospital bed before she died included former president Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and President Thabo Mbeki. Brenda’s only child, a son Bongani born in 1985, was the constant companion of her life. Bongz - his pet name - is now the name he uses professionally. He is an accomplished jazz pianist.

When his mother died Bongani paid her tribute: “I know that Brenda Nokuzola Majoni Fassie was a great loss to all of us locally and globally, but the one thing she told me was to spread love, strive for better things and to have confidence in myself no matter what people say.”

Fire Walker

The Fire Walker is a sculptural collaboration between artists William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx. The sculpture stands at a height of 11.3 metres just south of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge as one enters Newtown. The work is constructed from approximately 20 black and white laser-cut steel plates, positioned at varying angles to one another. These are evocative of bits of torn paper clad over a steel frame and arranged in a seemingly abstract manner. When one steps onto the site from either of the two pedestrian crossings, these loose steel fragments combine visually to create the cohesive and monumental image of The Fire Walker; a walking woman carrying a burning brazier on her head.

This image is typical of the street culture of Johannesburg and is particular to the site where it is installed. These entrepreneurs sell roasted ‘mielies’ and ‘smileys’ (roasted sheeps’ heads) to pedestrians, and are often seen carrying their burning braziers on their heads as they look for places to sell their food. In this sense, the work is a monument to the everyday, the overlooked, and to the entrepreneurial activities that have taken place on that site for many years.

This monumental sculpture carries with it, at every point, either the history or the threat of its own collapse. As you move around The Fire Walker, the fragments slide together to create a cohesive image. As you carry on walking, the figure collapses and explodes into loose fragments and abstraction, evocative of papers blown by the wind. It is a relational monument that is reliant on the point of view and the participation of the viewer for its own logic to hold.

When seen in a fractured state the work becomes almost animated; at times it seems as if the figure strides ahead with great certainty, at times she seems about to trip and fall, and at times the work is evocative of a riotous, or perhaps joyous mass of people, just before it flies into complete abstraction. Yet even within the abstraction there is always a hint of figuration, the promise and suggestion of cohesion.

Paper Pigeon

Paper Pigeon is a sculptural collaboration between artists Gerhard Marx and Maja Marx. Three large origami-like pigeons standing at a height of three meters, dwarf pedestrians passing Pigeon Square, Ferreirasdorp, Johannesburg.

Constructed from steel, these large pigeons reference the oriental paper folding technique known as origami, paying homage to the Chinese community that has played a significant role in this part of the city. The sculpture highlights the iconic presence of pigeons on Pigeon Square, not only in its visual reference to the pigeon as image, but also in serving as a perching pedestal for the vast resident pigeon community of Ferreirasdorp. Perching rods have been attached to the sculpture in positions that choreograph the visual impact of the birds: the darker shapes of the perched birds complete the recognisable tonal markings of the Paper Pigeon sculpture.

In monumentalising the presence of pigeons on the square, the work acknowledges the relationship between the pigeons and the local community, who feed them daily. The pigeon is primarily famed for its profound homing ability, known as a messenger, and this focus on the home and community is appropriate to both its position in front of the Family Court and to those who enter or return to the City from its western side.

Burning Truth

This sculpture by artist Usha Seerjarim stands opposite the Hamidia Mosque in Jennings Street, Fordsburg. The work reflects the burning of the Indian passes during Gandhi’s satyagraha or passive resistance campaign that was launched in Johannesburg in the first decade of the 20th century.

The cast iron pot with a zoetrope that reveals the word peace when it is spun around, is part of the series of artworks commissioned by the Sunday Times in honour of their 100th birthday.

A black plaque at the base of the sculpture honours Gandhi’s commitment to truth:
“On August 16 1908, 3 000 Muslims, Hindus and Christians led by Mohandas Gandhi, a Hindu, gathered outside the Hamidia Mosque and burned their passes, documents all people classified ‘non-white’ by the government were forced to carry or face imprisonment. The huge bonfire, lit in a cauldron, marked the first burning of passes in South Africa and the beginning of Gandhi’s satyagraha, or passive resistance, campaign. To find out more about this story go to

About 18 months earlier a law had been proposed which would force all Indian ‘men’ – males older than eight – to be fingerprinted and carry registration certificates. Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t produce this pass on demand were to be fined or imprisoned. The peaceful defiance against the race laws of South Africa – then still a British colony under the leadership of Jan Smuts – marks the first significant act of passive resistance (satyagraha), Gandhi’s budding ideology that brought down the British Empire in India nearly four decades later.

Gandhi said, “Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now.” On 28 January 1948 – two days before he was assassinated – Gandhi told a prayer meeting in New Delhi: “I have myself lived in South Africa for 20 years and I can therefore say that it’s my country.”

When Gandhi first arrived here in 1893 to pursue a case for a wealthy local businessman, he was a small-time lawyer who left two failed practices and his wife and children in India (his family subsequently joined him here).

A dapper and fastidious dresser, he wore a fashionable moustache and elegant suits befitting the British colonial gentleman he desperately wanted to be accepted as. It was thanks to the increasingly systematic racism he encountered here – most significantly, being thrown off a train for daring to buy a first-class ticket – that planted in him a growing sense of injustice that would eventually make him the Empire’s most persuasive enemy.

Gandhi had a cordial relationship with then SA Prime Minister Jan Smuts, until Smuts betrayed their agreement to repeal what was popularly known as The Black Act. Still, before Gandhi returned to India in 1914, he sent Smuts a gift of a pair of sandals (Gandhi had by now shunned ownership of material possessions and wore a dhoti).

On Gandhi’s 70th birthday, Smuts returned the sandals to the Mahatma (Great Soul) with these words: “I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.”

The Eland

This massive 50-ton, 7,5m statue of an eland has transformed the gateway entrance to the inner city from Braamfontein. The statue, which stands at the intersection of Ameshoff and Bertha streets, was designed by Clive van den Berg, a well-known South African artist and exhibition designer from the company Trace. His imposing design was selected as the winner of a competition in 2005 organized by the Braamfontein Art Committee, through an initiative by the Johannesburg Development Agency and the Braamfontein Improvement District. The project was managed by the Trinity Session.

The artists were asked to consider various issues and histories particular to the site, with emphasis placed on permanence and durability. Van den Berg said of the winning brief:

“I started with a sense of what I did not want. Having worked in, studied and theorised about public space for some years, I knew that I did not want to make a heroic sculpture of the Mandela Square variety, nor a sculpture that would be too immediately located in time and place. Eland places a large representation of an Eland on a corner where it has long since disappeared. This majestic animal would, I imagined, bring beauty and grandeur to a busy place. I hope it will also be an emblem that prompts reflection on our relationship to the past, and to the interconnectedness of environmental, cultural and spiritual destinies.
The corner is a busy connector of lateral geography, but what I am concerned with is the geography of memory and the spirit.”

Did You Know?

Did you know that the First President Street Power Station, built in Johannesburg in 1906, exploded in its first year of operation? In 1907, the Second President Street Power Station was built to replace it.