Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Would Joburg be Joburg without the Hillbrow Tower?

The Ghost City

“The skyline is burning” goes the song I’m playing in my car. The track is titled The Horizon is the Beltway and it’s appropriate (in that way that random things often are) because I’m driving around looking for vantage points from which to photograph the Sandton skyline. Now that I’m introducing Sandton into my work – for this is where the real centre of economic gravity in the city is, now – I need reference images. In the end, the best vantage point proves to be the Bryanston Shopping Centre, but the light is fading and I abandon my quest.

I think, a lot, about the Joburg skyline. This is because I spend a lot of time painting the city I both love and hate, and it’s not possible to signal that This Painting is About Joburg without including the way the city shapes the horizon.


Skylines define cities. We forget this sometimes, because we live amidst the concrete towers and navigate along the streets, our eyes fixed on the next set of robots. We focus on detail; to appreciate a skyline you need distance. Since I work in a messy, imprecise medium – lipstick, which is why all of this work is so red – I need iconography that signals, even to a casual observer, that I’m depicting my ideas about a particular place.

This view of the city is only a suggestion, but the presence of the tower hints that it’s Johannesburg. Appropriately enough in this city of elevated anxiety levels, it was painted while having a panic attack, so it’s titled (obviously) “Panic”:


Would the Joburg skyline be recognisable without the Hillbrow tower? Probably not. In this respect, Joburg is typical of many cities around the world. Paris, Seattle, Toronto and, to a lesser extent, Berlin: their skylines are all dominated by towers. It would be much harder to sell pens and fridge magnets and T-shirts without this kind of architectural priapism. (Joburg, then, is very definitely male, the yin to Cape Town’s motherly mountain yang.)

That the Hillbrow Tower should reign unchallenged as the key icon of the city is of course deeply ironic, given the aversion to its setting harboured by the suburban ratepayers who inhabit the world’s largest manmade forest (or so the tourist literature claims). Hillbrow remains the dark concrete heart of Johannesburg, and though the tower stretches into the sky and its telecommunications dishes reach into the ether beyond, it is also rooted in the fetid mulch of layer upon layer upon layer of urban decay. If any book evokes the feral spirit of the inner city, it is Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City; after reading it, I painted this image of the tower, then scratched images of animals into the surface of the paint:


Usually I paint the view from the north, because that’s the one that feels familiar and comfortable. But the truth is that this is the worst angle from which to look at Johannesburg: the city centre is hidden behind the ridge, the Hillbrow Tower is ridiculously tall, and the only other building visible in any meaningful way is Ponte City. The views from the south or the west are much more interesting if you’re looking to punctuate the flat line of the horizon with the more visually arresting crenellations of mothballed skyscrapers. This is a view of the city from another angle:


I’ve titled it Irrational Exuberance. The familiar outline of the city’s iconic buildings marks it as a depiction of Joburg, but the real meaning is contained in the amorphous space beneath, in the words – in this work, street names associated with the stock markets and reflections on the hope we invest in the city where we imagine we will make our fortunes. The city is a canvas onto which we project our frustrations, our aspirations, our fears. The skyline shapes the horizon, but everything above and below it is us.

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