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Inside the 'Creative Uprising' taking place at Constitutional Hill

The Con Hill precinct in Joburg’s Braamfontein is finding innovative ways to grow a creative economy, writes Ufrieda Ho

05 September 2021 - 00:02 By Ufrieda Ho
Lance McCormack of Flame Studios celebrates the creative economy taking root at Con Hill. The mural is by artist Mook Lion.
Lance McCormack of Flame Studios celebrates the creative economy taking root at Con Hill. The mural is by artist Mook Lion.
Image: Alon Skuy

You don't get to 128 years and not see some chaos and calamity. Survive some changes, too. This makes the Con Hill precinct, with its origin story that dates back to 1893, just about ripe for another shake-up.

Ideas had been brewing on the Hill long before Covid-19 changed life as we knew it. The precinct, which spans 22ha, spreads up the crest of Braamfontein's urban koppie.

Con Hill had known for some time that it had to adapt. It has had to tweak its models for space-sharing and find more sustainable ways to boost domestic interest and foot traffic, beyond a handful of calendar highlights. It also needed a formula to make its gravity of history and heritage more relatable, relevant and real.

Then Covid-19 and hard lockdowns hit and everything ground to a muted silence. There were no more tourists, no more schoolchildren on outings and no more events. Forced retreat, though, became the forced final push to put strategy and action into the ideas. The unknowns were terrifying, but the limbo of inaction would be a greater hell.

Things got a restart earlier this year with Constitutional Hill's public programmes co-ordinator Mariapaola McGurk coming on board in a time of lockdown. The position was newly created and McGurk, an artist and entrepreneur, plunged right in to give shape to what Con Hill has dubbed its “Creative Uprising”.

It's a model that taps into a creative economy but with its own distinct rules. The creative part is imagination as vision; the economy part is that it should bring in the right partners and have tangible pay-offs but frame value and needs differently.

As for rules, it's pretty much anything goes so long as there's a win-win-win - for the precinct, for the individual creatives and for the community.

McGurk says: “Con Hill has always had a vision of art and activism standing side by side and the idea of developing a creative hub in the precinct had been formulating for years.

But there's also always been a disconnect. She says: “The creative sector works in a way that's not understood by government or corporates because it doesn't follow the same structures, hierarchies and rules. But it's a system with pulsating energies and for Con Hill it's been about finding a way to get the message across in a way creatives can connect with.

“Creatives don't always realise their inherent value because they haven't always been able to generate income easily. But they are people who understand regeneration of space, social cohesion and diversity, and they allow debate and aren't afraid to let tensions and chaos rise.”

Mcgurk's role has inevitably been about closing these gaps, showing that red tape can be loosened without unravelling and flightiness can also have exquisite direction.

Constitutional Hill’s public programmes coordinator, Mariapaola Mcgurk.
Constitutional Hill’s public programmes coordinator, Mariapaola Mcgurk.
Image: Alon Skuy

One way to connect the two has come with new ways rentals are being set up in the sprawling precinct. Con Hill has prime assets of buildings, infrastructure and a perfect location, but it also stands empty. Creatives, meanwhile, need studio space, galleries and amenities like good transport networks and fibre, but they can't afford high rentals.

In the creative uprising formula, rental agreements take shape in part as barter and exchange. There are still obligations to meet over the 12-month rental period but it doesn't come down to rands and cents. As McGurk says: “You still have to buy into the ethos and you still have to deliver; it's not random and it's not a free ride”.

Fashion designer Phiwase Nxumalo's studio, The House of Diva, is based in the Transwerke Building at the foot of the hill.

The one-time prison warders' quarters and also one-time nursing sisters' quarters has been undergoing renovations so that it can eventually support 40 studios for creatives and non-profits working in the sector. It also has a rooftop that's shouting out to be developed into an events space.

Nxumalo says: “There's a buzz here and you do feel like you're part of a creative community. Next to me are musicians so I can hear them jamming and when I come up the stairs there's a visual artist who blows me away. Between us we share and exchange our services and we bounce ideas off each other.”

A clipboard gallery in House of Diva features clothes made and modelled by designer-entrepreneur Phiwase Nxumalo.
A clipboard gallery in House of Diva features clothes made and modelled by designer-entrepreneur Phiwase Nxumalo.
Image: Alon Skuy

There are people offering a courtyard gym class in exchange for a photographic shoot or voice-over work for some website design - “it's the age-old way of bartering”, says Nxumalo.

For her barter agreement, Nxumalo pays back by adding items to Con Hill's curio shop. She says there are other options being negotiated, like making uniforms for Con Hill staff and hosting a public fashion show. “I didn't know that I could give back to Con Hill but now I see that creatives can be partners and be an asset and an investment.”

Another Transwerke tenant, the Bubblegum Club, has used its studio space to bring out a digital magazine that focuses on cultural production across the continent. It also offers event planning and marketing services to paying clients.

But with subsidised rent in the precinct it has channelled the money saved into its project to support up-and-coming visual artists. This has taken the shape of offering a paid one-month residency at its Transwerke studio with a R5,000 stipend and a solo exhibition at the end of the residency.

Jamal Nxedlana of the Bubblegum Club says: “It's about mediating access to platforms, building bridges and collaborating. As much as Con Hill has connections, we are connected a lot more to the cultural underground. It means that each side has something to offer and something that will benefit the other.”

The Transwerke Building is undergoing transformation to become studio spaces with innovative rental agreements.
The Transwerke Building is undergoing transformation to become studio spaces with innovative rental agreements.
Image: Alon Skuy

Nxedlana says building networks through Con Hill gives visibility to the brand. This boosts its online retail sales and drives more commercial work to it. In turn it can grow its artist residency programme.

Economy can be more imaginative when it fears less the “what ifs” and “if onlys” and also when it kick-starts the good ol' public-private contract to deliver better for the public good, not PR spin.

Up on the Old Fort side of the Con Hill precinct, public-private partnership takes the form of the Flame Studios recording hub. Old prison cells here have been given the treatment of “all the re's”, says Lance McCormack, who heads up the registered not for profit company. The “re's” being repurposed, re-tenanted and re-imagined.

“Con Hill had done a lot of the groundwork over the years but they haven't always had the vision or the funding to take it to the next step,” he says.

Flame Studios’ sound engineer Nkanyiso Martin Ngwenya in the revamped prison that is now the rehearsal room.
Flame Studios’ sound engineer Nkanyiso Martin Ngwenya in the revamped prison that is now the rehearsal room.
Image: Alon Skuy

With private investment, the studio got the green light in 2019 to be the audio, sound and music support of the precinct. Con Hill has had success with events like Afropunk and BashaUhuru in the past, so this partnership gave structure to an already entrenched Con Hill offering.

The studios that were finished this year have been designed with an honest embrace of historical and heritage architecture while not skimping on being “world-class, not half-baked”, says McCormack. It's essential to draw commercial clients so the studios can be sustainable in the long run.

“Our name, Flame Studios, comes from the Flame of Democracy that burns outside the ConCourt. And ConCourt really is ground zero for the battle of the soul of the country, so there's a weighty sense of responsibility in what we're doing. We want to get it right,” says McCormack of being aligned to strengthening a young democracy.

The recording hub has as its neighbours the Speak Truth to Power Lounge and a catering start-up Food, I Love You. These are enterprises that mean a foodie space returns to the Hill, but also that there's room for poetry, performance, discussion and debate.

The creative economy on Con Hill draws on understanding this fuller swirl of needs, and realises that people want to be part of the collective churn when purpose and meaning merge. It is then that things start to turn, to spiral and the surge can become certain uprising.


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