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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Carlos

Johannesburg: City of Gold

Updated: Jan 25, 2020

An illustrated map of Johannesburg

illustrated map of Johannesburg
"Johannesburg: City of Gold" | Watercolor | 2019

Gold Rush

Johannesburg is a city that wasn't supposed to be if not for the discovery of gold in 1886. What was a plain highland savanna became the economic powerhouse of the African continent just before the turn of the 20th century. Around this crucial historical event and economic growth, a bustling multicultural city was built.

This map illustration was made for one of the Make Art That Sells courses on Editorial market. The assignment was to create a map of the city we live in. Since moving to South Africa in 2016, I have become familiar with the city of Johannesburg as well as the rest of the southernmost nation of the African continent. It was only logical to highlight this city for this assignment.

Studying the road map of Johannesburg and the surrounding suburbs as well as researching the history of the city from the 100 year cronicle of The Star news publication

Digging into History

I heavily researched about my current city, Johannesburg, and played around the concept of "Egoli" or a place of gold. There is however so many things to include that relate to this concept and the landmarks are either too cramped in one street or too far away from the city centre (Johannesburg CBD), and because of its dark history, aka Apartheid, I was also cautious about the elements I would include or exclude. I asked the locals' opinions on which landmark makes more sense including their beloved Madiba—Nelson Mandela, even though he’s hardly associated to gold other than his gigantic bronze statue at one of the shopping centers in the affluent suburb Sandton. One of them remarked that you could never go wrong with having Mandela in the picture. Let’s just say, for argument's sake, he was Johannesburg’s “Golden Man”. In addition, I also asked about their memories of growing up and living here.

I asked locals coming from different cultural backgrounds and heritage likewise age group what about in Johannesburg that relates to gold and what would be their historical significance. I gathered words such as “Shisanyama”, Zulu colloquial word for grilling meat, or the golden ambers of the burning coal likened to the gold ores of the mines, also equivalent to the Afrikaans word “braai”. Joburgers love their barbecues! I also discovered the bright yellow roses named after the city where it was bred and grown, the "Johannesburg Sun," and the common shrub, Melaleuca bracteata otherwise known as “Johannesburg Gold”. In contrast, during spring from September-November, the city blossoms into a colorful array of flowering trees especially the unmissable purple trees, the Jacarandas, though not native. Johannesburg is one of the biggest man-made urban jungle in the world and from a high viewpoint, the city is carpeted in greens in summer. could never go wrong with having Mandela in the picture

The gumboot dance, now recognized as an untouchable cultural heritage, is another significant feature of the city, where the dance originated. Workers who were prohibited to talk used the coded Wellington boot tapping techniques to communicate with one another through the dark tunnels of the gold mines, which then evolved into a proper dance you would typically see in many touristic venues all over the country.

The landmarks featured are the so-called Randlord houses built by British architect Herbert Baker during the gold rush years. Some of them still stand today either as a museum or a hotel and restaurant. Mining symbols such as the miners' sculptures, mine stamp mills and dumps that are scattered all over the city were also featured as well as the Gold Reef Amusement Park and Casino that echoes the stories of the city of gold. Likewise, you will also spot the major sports arenas that are frequented by Joburgers during rugby and football seasons as they support their favorite teams who are all sporting the golden colors of the city. It is also good timing that the Springboks, South Africa's national rugby team, whose homebase is Johannesburg, won the recently concluded Rugby World Cup. Although the high-rise towers had no direct gold mine significance, these landmarks are the most recognizable objects in the Joburg skyline and are reminders of the city's wealth due to its mining activities.

Icons individually painted using gold watercolor


Although one of the main gateways into the country is Johannesburg, most tourists skip the tour of the city because of its bad reputation from crime. I finally resolved to create a not so touristy map but rather that with more historical significance. So then I tried to focus on the city of gold, hence the dominance of the gold color, which was painted with gold, by the way. Also I wanted it to look like a collage painting.

I began work on this in July but for some reason I got stuck and did not go to finish. After leaving it on the shelf for months, I looked at it again and decided, I didn't want to change any of it except for some minor tweaks on textures and color adjustments.

Johannesburg has a golden and dark history. From the gold rush to slavery and subsequent wars to its rapid financial boom and modernization to Apartheid to a city degraded by crime. Even as a foreigner, I could very well relate to their sentiments of being a colony and losing their identity due to various cultural influences from their colonial masters. In my opinion, Johannesburg is a complicated cultural mixture with so much differences and division even though Apartheid was long abolished. The scars of their suffering are still healing but there is no reason not to relive their former glory days even on a piece of gilded paper. Now it is rehabilitating itself through the arts and culture and perhaps, with much hope, would see another golden era in the future.


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