Joburg’s oldest township Alexandra is a study in contrasts. Lying adjacent to luxurious Sandton with its shiny skyscrapers and glistening designer malls, the sprawling and crowded township of Alex (as it is known by locals) is by contrast a hodgepodge of architectural styles. Shacks and shantytowns surround the older original homes that date back to the 1940s and earlier, while along Alex's eastern edge lie the newer and neater housing developments built in recent years.
Alex was once nicknamed 'Dark City' due to its lack of electricity. Where there was once darkness however, now there is Maboneng meaning 'place of light' (not to be confused with the inner city district of the same name). Started in 2001 by Siphiwe Ngwenya, Maboneng Township Art Experience gives township artists a way to exhibit their work by displaying it in people’s homes.
The Maboneng Township Experience tour starts at the Marlboro Gautrain station where you'll be picked up by minibus by local resident, tour guide and basketball coach Harry Nakeng.
Harry leads the tour on a meander through Alex’s narrow busy streets, offering an insider’s peek into everyday life. Stops include the Art Flava gallery and project space. The dream child of visual artist Mxolisi Mbonjwa, the gallery finds its home in a converted cabin on a street corner conveniently situated between the Alexandra Mall and the Marlboro Gautrain Station. A largely self-taught artist Mbonjwa created Art Flava to give back to the community where he grew up and to offer children a space to create art.
Another stop is a visit to the home of a reclusive artist who introduces himself simply as "Tommy". In the wooden shack that he built for himself in 1995, Tommy has created an artistic shrine to everyday life in Alex as artworks share space with pots and pans. Tommy says he learned to paint at the local Thusong Youth Centre, and his paintings capture classic township experiences.
Other stops on the tour include a chance to try out the locally renowned Mama Queen’s vetkoeks, best enjoyed as part of a quintessential 'kasi breakfast', and a visit to Kasi Gym, a shipping container that has been transformed into a bodybuilding gym. The gym also doubles as a gallery with Kasi Gym's founder, bodybuilder and painter Tumi Masite's paintings, which focus on the social commentary surrounding the black female body, on prominent display.
Offering a different perspective on everyday life in Alex, The Maboneng Township Experience shows that, as Nakeng puts it "Alex has its stories". It also presents a unique opportunity to chat to artists and buy art directly from them at affordable prices.