Since opening in 2004, the Maison Rouge, near the Bastille, has become a brilliant addition to the contemporary art scene in Paris. An unexpectedly large space invariably curated for maximum use, Maison Rouge offers rich exhibitions based on an unusual principle: “red,” not the color but a bold and politically savvy attitude toward art presentation—what we might once have called left-wing.
Among Maison Rouge’s many projects, including exhibitions of outsider art, two series stand out. One organizes the holdings of private collections into thematic shows. Another considers cities peripheral to the power structure of the art world yet vibrant in their own orbits; each bears a title that begins with the word “My,” followed by the name of the locale. The first was devoted to Winnipeg, this one to Johannesburg: “My Joburg.”
The focus on a city outside the mainstream as well as the use of “my” convey both the social nature of the project and an informal sense of belonging. While the shows gather art from very different milieus, their limitation to a single city knits together works—and concerns—that might never meet back home. Artist stars in “My Joburg”—including William Kentridge, with a brilliant though (as yet) lesser-known animation titled Other Faces (2012), and David Goldblatt, with haunting photographs of sleeping refugees and empty structures in a bleak landscape—rub elbows with emerging and often younger lights. In “My Joburg,” an unexpected coherence emerged from a great variety of mediums, in which the fictional was juxtaposed with the documentary.
The scenography of work by 45 artists drew you inside Johannesburg. In the entrance corridor two works by the duo Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, featuring tall lightboxes, each containing some 200 images, set the tone. You saw some windows curtained off and others opening onto city views; in a few of the pictures figures appear, some turning their backs to the viewer. Here and there a handgun, parts of doors and an open door with bars protecting the interior. A sense of danger in the routine domestic sphere shades into normal homeliness.
Next to poetic black-and-white photographs by Andrew Tshabangu that turn the inner city into near abstractions, Zen Marie offered a split-screen video, Flyover: An Ethnography (2010). People either traversing a flyover bridge in Johannesburg or living underneath it speak of what the structure means and does to them. The bridge belongs both to travelers and to those perpetually disturbed by its noise and trembling. If this is ethnography, it is ethnography from the bottom up. Sue Williamson hints at constant transformation mixed with the resilience of old social problems in a city on the move in Better Lives: Albert and Isabelle Ngandu (2003). Exploring the tension between still and moving images, this color video has the look of a studio portrait, as a couple poses, unmoving, in front of a black-and-white backdrop of a cityscape.
Each figure in “My Joburg” leads a daily life in that city. This is no tourism. Yet, perhaps to ironically underscore the show’s divergence from routine views of “exotic” places—a category into which South Africa all too often falls—its accompanying catalogue is designed like a handy travel guide. Besides a curatorial statement and interviews with all of the artists, the book closes with the kind of information about the Johannesburg art world that one might in fact find in a guidebook for tourists.