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Driving down the busy roads of Johannesburg — past the faux Tuscan homes in the Fourways area, the shiny office blocks in Sandton and the dilapidated buildings downtown — it’s easy, at first glance, to see why it has been considered little more than a stopover for many en route to Kruger National Park or neighboring countries. Though there are 10 million trees throughout the city and jacaranda season turns the streets violet each spring, starting in September, its natural beauty isn’t immediately obvious.
The discovery of gold on farms in the late 1800s quickly transformed an agricultural area into a mining town. Ringed by some of the deepest gold mines in the world, some still active today, Joburg is often called eGoli, an isiZulu nickname for “place of gold.” A longtime financial center in South Africa, it attracted people who worked in business and manufacturing from across the continent. And while Johannesburg has never managed to shake its scruffy image, not everyone sees this as a drawback.
With that grit comes a profound sense of resilience; it’s a place where artists can thrive. The South African artist William Kentridge and the American-born photographer Roger Ballen have been based here for years; the latter recently opened the Inside Out Centre for the Arts in Forest Town. “The cultural landscape is completely unique in Johannesburg and largely defined by the entrepreneurial spirit of its creatives,” says Lucy MacGarry, a co-founder of Latitudes Online, a digital platform for art from Africa with an annual art fair in Joburg.
Cape Town is often seen as the country’s cultural capital thanks to its regular influx of travelers, many of whom seek out art, but Joburg is now home to major fairs such as FNB Art Joburg, which commences each September with a roster of local galleries like Gallery MOMO and Everard Read. Additionally, younger South African talents like the fashion designers Rich Mnisi and Thebe Magugu, who won the LVMH Prize, have chosen to stay rather than relocate to Cape Town or abroad — despite the relentless challenges the city contends with, including high levels of crime, intermittent water shortages…