History: An Aesthetic Credo

An art gallery masquerading as a hotel. Or a hotel disguised as an art gallery. Form follows function at 12 Decades Hotel, where the industrial veneer is punctuated by eruptions of lush art. Kate Turner visits

I wake up slowly, hazily aware of my surroundings. The City of Joburg lies open before me like a book. There’s Ponte, with its curves, and the spear that’s Hillbrow Tower. But although I can almost touch the familiar landmarks, I am far removed from the glint and grit of the Father City. I am seven floors up, ensconced in a dream of downy duvet, in a room clad with blonde wood and gold.

12 Decades maboneng


With rooms designed and conceptualised by some of South Africa’s most eminent creatives, including LoveJozi, Black Coffee, Marcus Neustetter and Dokter + Misses, the 12 Decades Johannesburg Art Hotel chronicles the history of Joburg spanning the period 1886 to 2006. The first of its kind in the country, each room captures a different aspect of the history of the city.


My room, designed by artist and curator Kim Stern, is dubbed ‘This House that Jack Built’ and is inspired by the 1906-1916 decade. Who’s Jack? Jack Lemkus is the erstwhile owner of the building, which in its former incarnation was a sporting goods wholesaler. But the ‘Jack’ in This House that Jack Built is mostly a nod to Jack Barnato Joel, an early mining magnate. The room, with its far-off view of the mine dumps and warm wooden boxes brimming with gold objet d’art, elegantly translates the era of the gold rush in Johannesburg.

Maboneng hotel

Joburg’s mining history is obviously a key aspect of the city, and so ‘Marabi’ room (1926-1936), by furniture designer Robyn Sims and photographer Pierre Croquet, also depicts the gold-rush era, but in stark contrast to the gilded filigree of my room, here we see the migrant miner’s perspective. And back then there was no buffet of gold for the miners to enjoy. Instead, for their efforts and considerable risk they got slums and a few shekels. “The post-gold-rush era saw landowners transforming Doornfontein into sub-divided living quarters for miners,” explain the designers euphemistically of the squalid shacks that these men called home. The miners arrived in the city from their rural homesteads with only the most basic furniture, and so the Marabi room, in its austerity, reflects this reality.

12 Decades hotel

The differences between the two rooms, one warm and golden, the other austere and poignant, brings polarisation into sharp relief. But it’s not all sober and depressing, because as the night thickened, so the slums came alive. “After dark, the men congregated in the shebeens, drinking potent and sometimes lethal skokiaans (home-brew concoctions) and moving to the rhythm of endlessly repetitive but infectious music that came to be known as marabi.” And so the Marabi room is named for the dance movement that was borne of the crowded and dirty, yet vibrant and richly communal lifestyle.

12 Decades hotel

Marcus Neustetter, Joburg-based artist, cultural activist and producer, and I amble through the hotel as the city percolates along outside. Marcus believes, as many Joburgers do, that the 12 Decades is so much more than just a hotel. “This place represents an important moment in the shift of the city. It is something one did not imagine to be in the inner city of Joburg a few years ago with the challenges that this city faces,” says Neustetter. “It marks a visionary effort to place value on the city and confirms that Joburg is a place one can access and explore, despite the sometimes negative image it has gained over the years and its complex history.”

12 Decades Maboneng

Aside from his own independent work as an artist, Neustetter, together with artist Bronwyn Lace, also curates the art collection that festoons the 12 Decades’ walls. I try to finagle him into selling me a striking piece by Indian artist Mithu Sen. But there’s no persuading him. “The 12 Decades Hotel has been running an art exchange programme where artists can contribute their artworks in return for accommodation. This piece is one of those works, and so it’s elemental to 12 Decades; it belongs here,” he placates. There are other pieces too. I spy works from local artists James Webb and Bunt Fihla, as well as Trinidadian Rodell Warner, German artist Candice Breitz, and Mozambican Gemuce Hilario.


“These works are housed in what we call the ‘Life Collection’, which decorate the walls of the public areas in the hotel. The collection is a growing one with over 80 works already gathered, and represents a very interesting portrait of a moment in Joburg through the kind of works and artists that take residency in the hotel,” says Neustetter. “The works range from established international artists like SA-born, UK-based Cliff Charles, to rising local artists that want to try life in Joburg.”

Maboeng 12 Decades