Shakespeare House. Ryan Lenora Brown

A group of artists hoped to spark a debate about housing, architectural preservation, and history. But did they cross the line from protest to vandalism?

When downtown Johannesburg's Shakespeare House first opened in 1938, the sleek Art Deco tower was a nod to South Africa's rising prominence in the world—an upscale Manhattan-style office building in the heart of Africa’s wealthiest city. Nearly eight decades later, the slumped and broken building has become a symbol for a different Johannesburg, one blighted by decades of white flight and municipal neglect.

But in July of last year, Shakespeare House got a vivid new makeover. A group of artists going by the name Beware of Colour marched through the inner city's abandoned buildings late at night, pouring pink paint from their gaping windows and splashing pigment across their crumbling facades.

The point, the artists say, was to draw attention to the neglect of much of Johannesburg's prime real estate. The inner city is scattered with derelict high rises, even as around 1 in 5 residents (PDF) of Gauteng, the province where Johannesburg is located, lived in informal shacks or squatter settlements in 2011.

"We wanted to literally highlight these buildings," says Yazmany Arboleda, the Colombian-American artist who instigated the project while working at an art camp for underserved youth in Johannesburg. "There’s a housing crisis in this city and yet here are all these buildings not being used."

The project quickly drew the ire of Johannesburg's architectural preservationists, who say it's reckless and short-sighted to fight decay with defacement.

"A city’s history is in its buildings," says Herbert Prins, an architect and heritage consultant who has publicly critiqued the Beware of Colour project. "So often it's not only the building itself, but what it represents, that warrants preservation."

Then again, appealing to history in contemporary South Africa is hardly a straightforward matter. Buildings like Shakespeare House were originally built for the exclusive use of whites, back when Johannesburg's inner city was the center of one of the modern world's most infamous projects of racial segregation.

Given that fact, "why exactly should we expect [current inner city residents] to be sentimental about that past?" asks Thomas Coggin, who teaches property law at the University of the Witwatersrand and co-runs the blog Urban Joburg.

A close-up of the windows on Shakespeare House. (Ryan Lenora Brown)

All of the buildings targeted by Arboleda and his team of nearly 30 local artists came from a roster of the city's "heritage buildings," structures more than 60 years old. They also shared another crucial characteristic: none had been occupied in the previous decade. Some had been abandoned as long as 20 years.

All, in other words, were markers of the mass exodus of white capital that happened in this city in the 1980s and 1990s, as restrictive building bylaws, the expansion of Joburg's yawning suburbs, and the crumbling of apartheid converged to radically reshape the city's urban core.

Led by a wave of incoming black residents previously barred from the city center, the transformation was brusque and unsentimental. One of Johannesburg's oldest synagogues became a boisterous tavern (and later, an equally boisterous Pentecostal church). Abandoned office blocks were overtaken by squatters. Terraced European-style cafes became Congolese nightclubs.

In the years leading up to the 2010 World Cup, however, the government began a massive campaign to "rejuvenate" the inner city by pouring capital into real estate development, forcibly evicting squatters, and trying to coax money back from the suburbs.

Private developers bought up abandoned buildings, promising to refashion them into the upscale high-rises they had once been. But many of those buildings were never touched, continuing to stand neglected as their owners patiently waited for their value to increase.

Clegg House. (Ryan Lenora Brown)

The buildings Arboleda chose to emblazon in pink were all owned either by the city of Johannesburg, or Urban Ocean, a major local developer with a wide portfolio of abandoned downtown property. And Arboleda says he would have kept going, except for one thing: his arrest.

One night in early August, he says, security guards near his chosen paint site became suspicious of a quiet knot of people, dressed as construction workers, tromping into an empty building with gallons of pink paint. They called the police, and after some negotiation, Arboleda was arrested, while the rest of the artists were ordered to leave the site.

After a night in prison on a charge of "malicious destruction of property," Arboleda was allowed to go free, but he called off the project and returned to the U.S. soon after.

"In a way the project was quite selfish, because [Arboleda] wasn't from Johannesburg, so he could always walk away from the consequences," Coggin says. It remains unclear who, if anyone, should be held responsible for scrubbing the buildings clean (assuming the paint will even come off).  

Arboleda insists he only intended to start a conversation, which he believes he has. Even Prins, who calls the project a "childish prank," says he reserves most of his outrage for the city itself. "The painting is just background noise," he says. "What's more appalling is that the neglect of these buildings has for so long gone unnoticed by those with the power to stop it."

A building on Rissik Street in Johannesburg. (Ryan Lenora Brown)

Ernest Majoro, a Zimbabwean trader who sells loose cigarettes and hard candies in the shadow of one of the marked buildings, says he understands the idea of the pink paint, but isn't sure it has achieved anything.

"I think the people who did it are trying to say that something should be done about all these old buildings, because they're idle and rotten and many people are homeless," he says. "But maybe there is a better way to show that than paint."

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