Gentrification, Art and the Work of Burning Museum in Woodstock, Cape Town

Resisting Erasure: Gentrification, Art and the Work of Burning Museum in Woodstock, Cape Town


This article discusses the increasing gentrification of Woodstock, Cape Town in the light of the double role of the arts as having simultaneously the possibility of enabling and resisting this process of gentrification. In particular, the article focuses on the art collective Burning Museum, who highlight the need for collaborative action to break the silences around gentrification and to challenge the forced displacement of already marginalized groups.

The Gentrification of Woodstock

Gentrification has become an increasing cause for concern in many major cities across the globe, resulting in the displacement of low-income residents from inner-city areas and further perpetuating spatial and economic inequalities. Local residents, who have grown up in these neighborhoods, are forced to relocate due to rising rental prices, high costs of nearby facilities and an overall sense of being unwelcome in these areas of so-called development. In South Africa, one such example is the area of Woodstock, Cape Town, where working-class residents have been displaced from their homes as new businesses are opened and residential spaces are marketed to higher-income individuals. Notably, Woodstock was one of the few areas that remained multiracial during the apartheid era, despite the National Party’s aim to segregate the country based on racial categories. [1] Through the introduction of the Group Areas Act in 1950, different racial groups were allocated different residential areas, with white people being assigned the most desirable areas and apportioned most of the land, despite only constituting a small percentage of the population. [2] However, Woodstock fell outside of the government’s purview and was exempted from the implementation of this Act, remaining a “grey area” which was able to avoid the forced removals occurring in other neighborhoods. [3] Offering low-income housing and flexible renting conditions, Woodstock historically drew in a range of people from various backgrounds, and it was also valued for its proximity to the city center and harbor. [4] Specifically, Woodstock was populated by working-class residents of different races coming from both inside and outside of South Africa. This situation began to change in the 1980s, and despite avoiding government-sanctioned forced removals, lower-income residents were pushed out by rising rent prices and new ‘developments’ taking place in the area. [5]

Challenging Spatial Inequality

Despite the formal end to apartheid and the introduction of democracy in 1994, spatial inequality continues to be a major issue in the ‘new’ South Africa. Focusing on Woodstock, in recent years there have been various new businesses established in the area and older buildings have been renovated and redecorated. [6] For example, the property developers Indigo Properties have taken a specific interest in Woodstock, opening the Old Biscuit Mill and the Woodstock Exchange, which are presented as trendy spaces for food, arts and culture. [7] Recent ‘developments’ such as these are mostly aimed at middle-class consumers, offering goods and services at higher prices and changing the nature of the economic activities in this area. Notably, due to the introduction of these businesses, many of the long-established, smaller shops are forced to close or move location. [8] Along with these changes, residential spaces have been revamped and rental prices have significantly increased.

Class plays a central role in spatial restructuring, since it is commonly lower-income residents who are displaced as higher-income individuals relocate and set up businesses. In this way, gentrification can be seen to intensify class divides, which are reinforced through the movement of capital. Within the South African context, there is a strong connection between class and race, as structured by apartheid (and colonialism) where wealth and property were disproportionately allocated, with white people gaining inordinate privileges. [9] Legislation such as the Group Areas Act split the country along racial lines, and the repercussions of this spatial segregation are still evident today, especially in a city such as Cape Town where economic and racial divides dictate who has access to and ownership of resources. This is not to say that race is always prescriptive of class, but it is necessary to acknowledge the intersecting nature to understand how gentrification disproportionately affects working-class people of color in South Africa.

Additionally, it is important to examine the link between gender and gentrification, which is often neglected in discussions on inner-city displacement. Bondi highlights this connection in her article on the interactions between gender and gentrification. Notably, she mentions the argument that the shifting roles of women in society have aided processes of gentrification, with more women moving into the job market, seeking private housing and living outside of traditional family structures. [10] However, this explanation fails to acknowledge how women are still marginalized within capitalist systems and made vulnerable by gentrification. [11] As noted by Ah Goo, it is often the most vulnerable people in society who are displaced and experience the worst effects of gentrification. [12] Following this, I contest that there should be further attention given to the links between gender and vulnerability in relation to gentrification.

Aestheticizing Space: The Complicity of Art in Gentrification

The arts are often entwined with practices of gentrification, playing a role in the place-making process whereby areas are made attractive for investment. Mathews’ (2010) article on aestheticizing space is particularly useful here, as she explores the connection between art and urban regeneration, questioning how artist communities modify spaces in both visible and invisible ways. Specifically, she observes how the arts have played a role in the first stage of gentrification, where artwork is used to remake the image of a typically lower-income area. [13] Through redesigning the space as something trendy and enhanced, the area is made desirable for middle- and upper-class residents, essentially setting the scene for rising rental prices and further investment. Considering this, the arts act as “a seedbed for gentrification” [14], forming the foundation for changes in the structure of the city, and for the displacement which follows. While smaller art collectives and individual artists are often involved in the first steps of the process, it is common for commercial art galleries to take over when the marketability of the place has increased. [15] In this way, despite acting as initial enablers, artists can be driven out of the space by larger corporations or those with greater capital, subsequently falling victim to the same gentrification process. In this manner, it is evident that gentrification takes on a life of its own and escalates beyond the arts. However, I still maintain that art holds unique possibilities for contesting dominant power structures.

Burning Museum: Disrupting Gentrification Through Street Art

In examining the use of art to oppose gentrification, I am particularly interested in the public artwork produced by Burning Museum on the streets of Woodstock. Burning Museum is a collaborative arts collective based in Cape Town, formed in February 2013. [16] They focus predominantly on street art and disrupting public space, although they have also presented their work in exhibitions. Burning Museum are particularly interested in looking at history, identities, place and structures, and one of their main aims is to bring attention to the gentrification and exclusions happening within inner-city Cape Town. [17] By placing their artwork in commonly neglected or dilapidated public areas (such as underneath bridges or on empty street corners), they aim to make their work accessible to everyone. In doing this, they contest the common inaccessibility of the art world, which often excludes the voices of commonly marginalized populations (for example, people of color and the working-class). In other words, as their name suggests, they aim to leave a residue, to be visible and to stage a disruption to exclusionary spaces. These intentions are also evident from the ‘About’ page of the Burning Museum website:

“We are interested in the seen and unseen, the stories that linger as ghosts on gentrified street corners; in opening up and re-imagining space as potential avenues into the layers of history that are buried within, under, and between.” [18]

By speaking to these ghosts of the past, Burning Museum connects history to the present. Using their art, they not only aim to make visible the oft-forgotten histories, but also to re-imagine space. They do this by pasting enlarged wheat-pasted images of previous District Six residents on the walls and bridges in Woodstock and its surrounding areas. [19] These images have been sourced from the archives of the District Six Museum, taken by the Van Kalker Photographic Studio between the 1950s and 1970s. [20] In some cases, they have overlaid the photographs on images of the Natives Land Act of 1913 (as seen in the picture below), an apartheid legislation that dictated that black people could only own property in limited areas of the country. [21] In this way, they connect the history of forced removals and unequal land distribution to the present-day situation in South Africa, making a commentary on the ongoing spatial inequalities, which remain pervasive and detrimental.

Resisting Erasure
Burning Museum, The Boys 2, 2013, Wheat paste, Woodstock, Cape Town. Courtesy of the artist.

Focusing more closely on the artwork, it is notable that the people in these images look directly at those passing by, confronting the viewer and calling to be acknowledged. In the picture above, for example, the boys stare straight ahead, connecting with the viewer on a personal level and in turn initiating a possible affective response. There is no explanation given for the artwork, leaving this open to interpretation and allowing the images to tell their own stories. Considering this, the Burning Museum collective do not claim to speak for the people in the photos, but rather expose these untold histories. Although there is limited information given to the viewer, by placing the residents’ photographs on top of images of the Land Act, it can be deduced that the artwork has to do with displacement and spatial inequality. The simple presence of these images also acts as a disruption to the space. Notably, the images are not made to be aesthetically pleasing or particularly attractive. They are commonly in black and white and are often crumbling or partly washed out. Considering this, Burning Museum’s artwork challenges the use of art in gentrifying space, and contests the image-making which is central to gentrification. By pasting images in public places, with little or no explanation, Burning Museum raise questions about what it means to inhabit a space, offering new interventions and calling for us to collectively confront our histories.

Looking at the work of Burning Museum, it is evident that public art can create a dialogue between the past and the present, acting as a means to resist erasure and to center both past and present injustices. Considering this discussion, I argue that we need to bring forgotten histories to the forefront, and to use art as a means of reclaiming space and place.


Robyn Ausmeier is currently studying the GEMMA Master’s program in Women’s and Gender Studies. She is from South Africa and completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Cape Town. Robyn is a feminist researcher with a specific interest in pedagogical structures and radically transforming education systems.

[1] Garside, “Inner City Gentrification in South Africa,” 31.

[2] Garside, 31.

[3] Fleming, “Making a place for the rich,” 3.

[4] Fleming, 2.

[5] Garside, 32.

[6] Joseph, “The Gentrification of Woodstock,” 2014.

[7] Joseph.

[8] Joseph.

[9] Garside, 31.

[10] Bondi, “Gender Divisions and Gentrification,” 191.

[11] Bondi, 191.

[12] Ah Goo, “Gentrification in South Africa,” 104.

[13] Mathews, “Aestheticizing Space,” 672.

[14] Mathews, 672.

[15] Mathews, 665.

[16] Dantas, “Justin Davy of Burning Museum,” 2016.

[17] Burning Museum, “About,” 2018.

[18] Burning Museum, 2018.

[19] Leibbrandt, “The agonistic politics of Burning Museum,” 2015.

[20] Rawoot, “Artists Taking on Gentrification,” 2014.

[21] Rawoot, 2014.



Ah Goo, Delia. 2018. “Gentrification in South Africa: The ‘forgotten voices’ of the displaced in the inner city of Johannesburg.” In Urban renewal, community and participation: Theory, policy and practice, edited by Julie Clarke and Nicholas Wise, 89-110. Basel: Springer International Publishing AG.

Bondi, Liz. 1991. “Gender divisions and gentrification: A critique.” Transactions of the institute of British geographers 16: 190–198.

Burning Museum. n.d. “About.” Accessed June 25, 2018.

Dantas, Nancy. 2016. “Justin Davy of Burning Museum.” On curating 32: 13-18.

Fleming, Andrew. 2011. “Making a place for the rich? Urban poor evictions and gentrification in Woodstock, South Africa. Dissertation.” MSc diss., London School of Economics and Political Science.

Garside, Jayne. 1993. “Inner city gentrification in South Africa: The case of Woodstock, Cape Town.” GeoJournal 30 (1): 29-35.

Joseph, Raymond. 2014. “The gentrification of Woodstock: from rundown suburb to hipster heaven.” The Guardian, August 12, 2014.

Leibbrandt, Tim. 2015. “The agonistic politics of Burning Museum.” ArtThrob, 15 April 2015.

Mathews, Vanessa. 2010. “Aestheticizing space: Art, gentrification and the city.” Geography compass 4 (6): 660-675.

Rawoot, Ilham. 2014. “The artists taking on gentrification in South Africa.” Dazed, October 8, 2014.