A material exhibition focusing on Johannesburg’s material past, present and future

Image: Dave East

Visiting Johannesburg, you feel the charged history of the landscape around you. The city is buttressed by mine-dumps. They stand as archives of our historic and contemporary urbanisation, our movement, our wellbeing - with their continued influence in the country and region echoing and reverberating as the city groans . They define the aesthetic hues and tone of the city itself – a dredged up reflection of the light umber of the highveld embodied in these looming structures – remnants of the past that shape our future.

Globally, many cities are built off the back of extractive industry. But few are contemporarily typified by the material and visual landscape of that heritage in the way that Johannesburg is. The proposed project, Material World is an exhibition exploring the past, present, and future of Johannesburg’s materiality. That being; the composition of the city through its material lens - how the city came to be and where it is going as a result of its gold-laden history. The goal of the exhibition is to interrogate this intersectional legacy through art, design, architecture, and other creative practices and pose solutions for a reparative, restorative, regenerative future through materials.

We at Big Circle Studios, a public benefit organisation based in Johannesburg will be the main drivers of implementing the exhibition. Our mission is to drive grassroots transitions to the circular economy by finding lasting solutions to build a more sustainable and just economic system. The circular economy is characterised by aiming to reduce negative externalities and design out waste all the while creating equitable social infrastructure and livelihoods that support as many people as possible. Through Big Circle, we find our place in this broader system through material research, community engagement, workshops, artworks, prototyping, and other knowledge sharing systems. We see Material World as a continuation and expansion of our work.

The exhibition will consist of physical and digital works that speak to the space - networks of the city; people; and our broader ecology. Using vinyl and curatorial prompts we can display these connections and networks. In doing so we can encourage immersive and interactive engagement with the presentation of art, design, and human ecology.

The journey of the discussion will be broken down into three parts. The first, the past, will give us context for the exploration. Through wall-texts and artworks we will survey what frames us with potential referencing to our geological history, the Tswana city of Kweneng, pre-colonial history of gold in the area, the settler history of Johannesburg, misinformation about gold from the Apartheid state, the history of labour, or the history of gold-rush migration to name a few. Each of these components demonstrate our material roots – evidence for Johannesburg as a material city and the economic heartbeat of the country.

The second component of Material World will fit us into the present and state our challenge. Our health; our built environment; our ecology; the pollutants from the dumps; the hidden labour and livelihoods that still haunt the abandoned catacombs of our city-region. This poses an investigation into the hidden cost of the mines as well as the shining beacon of potential Johannesburg still represents.

The third and final section of the exhibition poses an opportunity. It becomes playful, speculative, and expansive, asking: How can materials, indigenous knowledge, and nature-based solutions remedy some of the context and challenges presented earlier in the exhibition? How can we build on what feels like a renaissance of the city-region? How can art, design, and culture move us forward? How can we queer our understanding of the spaces we occupy for parity and equity? What role does technology play? Elements of this may reflect on bio and myco-remediation, the future of materials, AI, lowering emissions, creating work, and improving health.

Pulling further knowledge-sharing activities to the core of the project, seminars would be hosted in tandem to the exhibit. These would be hosted by participating artists and external practitioners. They would seek to largely address the latter section of the exhibition, opening up space for dialogue on conjectural solutions that speak to the city’s future through process-work, low-tech creativity, traditional ecological knowledge, and other areas. These seminars would not only build engagement but hope to fortify the impact of discussing materiality through a restorative and regenerative lens. 

Ultimately we seek to explore the following prompt on Economies of Repair at an urban level:

How can we remediate the cityscape through exploring materials? - And what knock on effect can that have on the social, environmental and economic challenges the extraction economy has posed on Johannesburg?

The exhibition will be held in 2024. 


Big Circle Studios is a registered Public Benefit Organisation and can provide Section 18A certificates. We are currently fundraising to get this project off the ground. If you are up to helping us get there you can find our banking details below or donation link to the right.

Acc name: Big Circle Studios (NPC)
Bank: First National Bank
Account number: 62871616383
Branch Code: 250655
Reference: Material World