The Dark City

The Dark City

by Mamello Sejake                              Posted: 2016/11/29

A ghostly look inside the inner city’s crumbling buildings, the people who live there and their stories.

What began as a yearning to push the study and practice of architecture to become an exercise that engages more with the lives it’s supposed to affect has spilt out into a stunning exhibition, The Dark City which is currently based at Circa.

If you’re familiar with the inner city then you’ll know the ghostly building, the “bad buildings” that shadow the streets looking like cold gloomy old men who spend their days reminiscing the warmth they once knew.

It’s been three years in the making documenting buildings which have their stories written in the history books over the past 130 years.


The exhibition takes the viewer on a journey through Joburg’s reality which although some people might be somewhat visually familiar with have never engaged with intimately. It is a collection of close range observations and documentations with the life inside these buildings over the past 130 years. The project mainly focuses on one particular building known as Dark City in Doornfontein. It is a decaying windowless structure without electricity, toilets, refuse removal, running water, two stories flooded with dirty water and three stories high with trash and occupants who cannot afford to live anywhere else.

Although many of the rotting buildings have been written off as places that cannot be occupied these building still serve as homes, places where people seek refuge, lay their heads to rest and are an unending testament to Joburg’s ongoing lifecycle characterized by occupation, violence and abandonment. Hariwe simplified it by saying that people occupy spaces, these buildings, which are then often plagued by violence at some point and then abandoned… but only the lucky few have the comfort of leaving.

As you walk in you’re greeted by a video produced by Dirk Chalmers showing a waste collector going about his work of sorting and collecting waste that he’ll sell to a recycling company. You’ll find men like him all over the city and in these cold buildings – average people who are trying to get by. Their jobs don’t bring in much but they offer a great service to our city which is overwhelmed by waste however that’s not enough to buy them a decent bed and a roof over their heads. Places like Dark City become home.


Throughout the exhibition you’re confronted with states, chilling photographs by Jono Wood and more video footage exposing the reality of the buildings and those who shoulder the burden of life there. Pain washed over me as peered into the lives of my fellow city dwellers who have been dealt a tough hand. Surveys were conducted with the people who live there during the preparation phase leading up to the exhibition and the results were plastered on the walls…

Questions like “do you know somebody who has died in Dark City” to which an alarming 80% of the people said yes and 62% of them reflecting that those people were stabbed to death. These are people who largely came to the city of gold in search of jobs and prosperity but end up with a less than perfect ending.

Towards the end of the exhibition Hariwe and the occupants take your hand for a closer look inside. It moves from an exhibition to a conversation. We stop seeing Dark City through the eyes of its curators and instead through the eyes of those who wake up there every day.  


Six cameras were handed out to the occupants and they were asked to take pictures of the entrance of their building, the inside of their unit, outside of their window, a neighbor they know, things that they don’t like about the building, something of value as well as a communal space. There was nothing welcoming about the buildings – doorways were dark and scary, their units didn’t look homey or healthy, what they didn’t like as well as the outside of their windows were unsanitary trash piles and the communal spaces were ghastly. It frightens me how humans manage to exist and survive in such spaces.

Next to that were pictures of people’s hands… the hands of the people who live there - scared, disjointed and disfigured all from being inside there for too long. Some hands belonged to women and others to the men – the harshness of the space knew no gender.  

There’s a lot that we don’t see, privilege shields us from a lot and there are many paths we’ll never walk but moments like these, exhibitions like The Dark City, give us a glimpse into worlds we otherwise might never get to see.  


The exhibition will run until the 15th of January at Circa.

Photos by Jono Wood 

A ghostly look inside the inner city’s crumbling buildings, the people who live there and their stories.


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