Influencers at Open Studios Jozi 2023

Urban renewal 

With the decline of inner city Joburg over the last decade plus, many unused buildings have been converted by artists into affordable communal studio spaces. One such collective founded in 2006 and now comprising about 40 artists, is based at August House at 76 End Street in Doornfontein. 

Enter Sara Hallatt the founder and director of the META Foundation, (a non-profit visual arts company based at August House). Sara is the driver of OpenStudios.Joburg, a weekend of opening several inner-city studios to the public, for people to meet the artists, see their artwork and hopefully start or augment their art collection. 

The vision and commitment of artists, cultural activists and entrepreneurs who, against all odds, initiate, develop and sustain small pockets of creativity and inner-city upliftment provide  energizing, exciting and inspiring initiatives which could and should serve as fine examples for policy makers in local government. Berating Johannesburg’s 21stCentury policy of “slum clearance’ and the handling of urban decay, Chris Thurman writes: (Business Day 19/05/23):

If only those in charge of our collective resources had just a sliver of the courage, conviction or vision of those working to sustain the Johannesburg art scene and to restore (or even reimagine) parts of the city that are often recruited into the narrative of urban decay.


Penguin 2021

At the time of the media launch to Open Studios (which I was fortunate to be part of), I also happened to be in the middle of reading John Boyne’s The Echo Chamber, a deeply satirical commentary on the workings and aspirations of social networkers, along the lines of Tom Sharpe’s 1970’s novels lampooning the absurdities of the South African Apartheid state.

I was somewhat intrigued to learn that several of the flamboyant fellow participants at the media launch to Open Studios were “influencers”, employed by Nando’s to pose for selfies and be snapped with and by fellow participants, for the viral spread of images and videos on Instagram and TikTok.

Influencers for Nando’s Creativity. Photo courtesy  Nando’ s brand is firmly rooted in creativity, innovation, and edginess (their adverts bear testimony to this), so it makes sense that the networking language and technology of Gen Z is used.

Divides and disconnects 

I was struck by several things – my age primarily … my ambivalence to and questioning of the role of glamour, trend-setters and fan-bases, placed me firmly in a dinosaur age, one which struggles with celebrity culture, the addiction to “likes”, “the fury of the thumb-driven commentariat“. I am liked therefore I am. Or put another way.  I am not cancelled therefore I exist. 

And perhaps my ambivalence was more strongly felt because of the extreme contrasts between the values of selfie-absorption, the role of image, of marketing “the look” (all, I accept, for logical business reasons – Nando’s does amazing work with promoting artists and young creatives), and the parallel universe of urban decay and degradation, poverty and homelessness.  And most challenging for me, my own role in this “disconnect”.  

Buckles and bows
In the shoes of the homeless
Posing in the best light: Inside Asisebenze Studio
Outside in the street below: inner city school sports facilities, taxis waiting for their afternoon hustle, street sales, traces of the night stored on a roof
Constructing the image
No dumping

The breakneck speed in the development of social media platforms 

The contrasts of these realities and my response to the disconnect that they speak of, led me down a further rabbit hole. Boyne in The Echo Chamber prefaces various sections about events in the lives of the Cleverly family, (the Cleverleys being the central characters in Boyne’s satire), with a reference to the date emergence of significant social networking platforms. 

Facebook 4 Feb 2004 (Boyne p. 5)  

… in a dorm room at Harvard University a nineteen-year-old boy presses the return button in his computer keyboard and watches as the first post in something he’s called ‘The Facebook” appears: Mark Zuckerberg changed his profile picture.  

By December 2005, Facebook had 6 million users

Twitter 21 March 2006 (Boyne p. 94) 

… in San Francisco, a twenty-nine-year-old man named Jack Dorsey, having finished creating the operating system and website, tweets this: ‘@jack: “just setting up my twttr’. 

This first tweet was sold for charity in March 2021 for 2 million pounds to a Malaysian_businessman. “This is not just a tweet!” the buyer posted from his own Twitter. “I think years later people will realize the true value of this tweet, like the Mona Lisa painting.”

Social media experts say the sale of tweets and other online posts will become more popular. “We live in an age where celebrities, musicians and influencers have more than fans, they have stans, and they will want to own a piece of their favourite stars,” said Cathy Hackl, founder of Futures Intelligence Group. “Just like people buy physical memorabilia, they will buy their tweets, posts, and snaps because they want to feel close to that star”. 

Instagram 16 July 2010 (Boyne p. 193)

… near a taco stand in Mexico, a dog sits on the ground, panting and looking up hopefully, while a twenty-six-year old man named Kevin Systrom, takes a photograph of him, posting it to his brand-new Instagram account and captioning it: test 

It seems this “test”post was the second instagram post, or maybe even the seventh!!

#CutePuppy  Kevin’s post has the first Instagram tag belonging to his girlfriend’s personal account Nicole, whose foot appears next to the dog.

Snapchat (originally called Picaboo) 16 September 2011 (Boyne p 305)

… a group of former Stanford University students agree that “Ghostface Chillah”, a black-and-white shape centred in a yellow background, will become the image to represent their new multimedia messaging application, called Snapchat. 

TikTok 27 September 2016 (Boyne p 409

… in Beijing, a man named Zhnag Yiming turned to his high-school girlfriend and said, “I think I’ll call it TikTok”. 

Perhaps this is Boyne’s artistic license, as it seems that Douyin (the initial name for TikTok) was released in the Chinese market in September 2016 and the app was only launched as TikTok in the international market in September 2017. 

Full circle to influencers and social networkers: since 1994 there has never been a more crucial need in South Africa, for community-minded citizen activists, especially among younger people who are the ones who will build the future of this country. There are, of course, many voices on social media who speak about social issues and advocate for the greater good.  Let’s give these voices a megaphone. 

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