From our partners at Art Practical, today we bring you Larissa Archer‘s review of Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa, currently on view at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. The review highlights the work of photographers Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, whose portraits, video projects, and zines reveal the lives of the residents living in a famous Brutalist building in Johannesburg. This article was originally published on April 29, 2014.
“It was a place where the wave crashed inwards upon itself, with the seething violence of delayed hope. It was Africa coming back, but with nowhere yet to go…. It was fifty-four floors of people in between other places.”—Denis Hirson, Perec/Ponte
In the late ’60s, designers Mannie Feldman, Manfred Hermer, and Rodney Grosskopf began work on what was to be the tallest residential building in the Southern Hemisphere. The massive Brutalist structure was intended for the white well-heeled to live closer to the center of Johannesburg, rather than their suburban retreats. But in 1976, as the building neared completion, the Soweto uprisings brought violence and opprobrium to the region and its recalcitrant apartheid-era laws and mores. The property market tanked and the developers’ dream of affluent white South Africans living in a tower of luxury flats and duplexes vanished. Throughout the late ’70s and ’80s, Ponte City’s population went from low-income and racially mixed, to predominantly black foreigners (Nigerians, Zimbabweans, and the Congolese), while the already troubled building fell further into disrepair. In 2007 a new pair of developers envisioned a rebirth of the iconic building as, again, housing for the affluent. Many tenants found themselves evicted, and apartments were redesigned with décor themes like “Old Money” and “Glam Rock.” When the 2008 economic crisis hit, the banks pulled their money and the remaining tenants continued to live among the empty apartments and crumbling concrete.