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Johannesburg (AFP) – Next to a wall surrounding a vacant lot in central Johannesburg, a cherry picker lifts a man above the street.
He does not repair power lines, but spray paints a canvas larger than a billboard with the portraits of four contemporary South African musicians.
Known as Dbongz, the artist is at the forefront of a growing movement that has embraced the courage of Johannesburg to create paintings that have helped the once neglected city center come back to life.
“(The city) was boring, mundane and at the same time dodgy,” said the 32-year-old.
“But because of the color, because of these animated murals that we’re painting, people are starting to see it as a place that they can come in.”
What was an artists’ hobby has increasingly become a business, with property companies commissioning artwork to spruce up their buildings.
In some neighborhoods, the walls at every street corner have been given a splash of color.
In the 1990s, downtown Johannesburg notoriously fell into a period of desolation and abandonment.
Already undermined by sanctions in the 1980s, the advent of democracy in 1994 was met with the flight of white-owned businesses to high-walled suburbs.
Entire blocks have been left empty. The hotels simply bricked up their doors, without even bothering to auction off the contents.
In the early 2000s, real estate entrepreneurs came back and started experimenting.
City Property, a real estate company, has purchased several derelict office towers to convert them into affordable housing.
Stuck with an old tiled wall facing the street, the firm commissioned South African artist Hannelie Coetzee to revitalize it.
“Cities are cold, concrete, very gridded places. Art brings a bit of softness, or a moment of reflection that you might not expect,” she said.
“That to me is the magic of public art. It creates meaning through the voices of artists, for a specific city.”
She created a 166 square meter portrait of a woman, made up of more than 2,000 plates, saucers and bowls.
The woman’s haircut was inspired by the way South African women today are adapting traditional hairstyles into new trendy looks.
Developer Adam Levy entrusted a 10-story building to American artist Shepard Fairey, best known for his iconic “Hope” portrait of Barack Obama.
An exposed wall has become a portrait of Nelson Mandela dominating the city.
Artistic improvements serve as subliminal cues to visitors that someone is taking care of the neighborhood, Levy said.
“Now it’s so obvious that there’s a system behind the scenes that cares about what’s going on here. And I think people can open up in that space,” Levy said.
“They feel comfortable and safe. They feel well cared for and appreciated.”
Over the past decade, brands have been breaking into the industry, commissioning murals for publicity purposes, said Marcel Swain, marketing manager at Heineken South Africa, which recently held a street art competition .
Dbongz has become one of Johannesburg’s most recognizable street performers.
His works became a visual hallmark for the city and inspired a wave of others.
Dbongz’s latest mural was commissioned by Apple Music to feature singer Simphiwe Dana, folk guitarist Bongeziwe Mabandla, jazz musician Mandisi Dyantyis and amapiano sensation Nobuhle.
The faces of the musicians are painted in black and white but their clothes and jewelry stand out in bright colors, against a bright green background with patterns inspired by traditional textiles.
Born in a township on the western outskirts of the city, the artist is also known for his work in underprivileged neighborhoods, where he sometimes paints neighborhood children on large walls.
“It makes people believe in themselves and see themselves in a bigger, bigger light than what’s going on in their lives,” he said.
© 2022 AFP