Recently, the Joburg Property Company (JPC), an agency of the City of Johannesburg, sent out a warm invitation to all the residents of Johannesburg, calling on them to participate in an exciting public art competition.

The competition (open to both young and old, professionals and hopefuls) invited artists to submit drawings, paintings and prints that told a unique story about their community and their community’s history. The winning designs would be translated into wooden totems as part of a sculptural feature to be placed inside the iconic Council Chamber currently under construction in Braamfontein. This progressive Council Chamber will form the core of Johannesburg’s new Metro Centre, built with the sole purpose of improving service delivery to the residents of Johannesburg.

To stand a chance of being selected, citizens were encouraged to base their designs on the overarching theme of warmth and inclusivity at the new chambers. More importantly, their totems needed to embody and represent the distinctive stories of the inhabitants of their communities.

From more than 500 entries, 135 honoured winners were selected to take part in this exceptional visual art form. An adjudication panel comprising representatives from the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Gallery MOMO, studioMas and the Trinity Session as technical advisers, with observers from Bayete Capital and JPC, were asked to select the most relevant designs guided by the following criteria:

  • The overall selection must be inclusive and diverse. The seven regions of Johannesburg should be represented as equally as possible
  • The quality of the artwork in terms of simplicity of idea, complexity of design and overall visual creativity
  • The uniqueness of the story behind the design, with an emphasis on a positive or poetic expression of Johannesburg
  • In order to represent all seven regions of Johannesburg, between 10 and 25 designs were selected per region. The selections were not based only on the total number of entries per region, but also on the potential for each design to be made into a totem that demonstrates the diversity of the residents of Johannesburg.

Historically, totems were monumental sculptures carved on poles, posts or pillars with designs made to symbolise cultural beliefs, often recounting familiar legends, clan lineages or notable events. As such, they are the perfect medium of choice for a competition designed to honour communities and their distinctive culture and way of life. And because this is a legacy art project, every image chosen (and the way it is converted into a totem) will be treated with the greatest of respect for the entrant and the stories represented.

When the winners of the Council Chamber Totem Art Competition were given the good news, many of them were quite surprised. A number of them, not artists by trade, never expected to win. But of course, this was the very heart and purpose of the brief … It was to be inclusive to all residents of Johannesburg, as every story is as relevant and important as the next, and the varying designs offer special perspectives on the communities in which the residents live. That said, many up-and-coming artists also leapt at the opportunity to take part in this historic venture, seeing the immense value of the project.

The winners were each awarded with R5 000, but the greatest prize they could have been given, was the overwhelming sense of pride in seeing their work memorialised.

As permanent fixtures woven into the fabric of the Council Chamber’s design, these totems will stand as testaments to the people of Johannesburg and their heritage. Upon final installation, visitors will be able to enjoy the experience of walking the circular floors of the chambers complimented by the towering 2m-high totems framing magnificent city views.

When the competition kicked off, JPC invited residents to take part in leaving a lasting legacy … and collectively, they have certainly done just that!