Art Blooms Inside Johannesburg’s Drill Hall

by | Jul 27, 2023 | Arts and Culture, Johannesburg, Johannesburg City Centre, Museums and Buildings | 18 comments

A few days ago I walked into the Drill Hall, in the frenetic center of downtown Joburg, and went through a wormhole into an alternate universe.

Art work outside the Drill Hall
Outside the Drill Hall — a hint of what’s to come.
Hallway inside the Drill Hall in downtown Johannesburg
Inside the Hall, where every found object — a chunk of carpet padding, a cracked toilet, a rubber boot, a plastic bottle, an avocado pit, a discarded wallet, a dead palm frond, a mannequin leg, a sheep skull, or any other thrown-away thing — becomes art and/or a vessel for life.
The back of the Drill Hall. I didn’t get a photo of the front of the building; it’s across the street from one of Joburg’s largest taxi ranks and rather chaotic on that side.
Midday traffic at the Noord Street taxi rank.
This is normal, midday traffic (not even rush-hour) at the Noord Taxi Rank — shot from the Drill Hall’s first floor balcony.

I’ve spent the last three days pondering this one-hour visit and how to present it on the blog. I wasn’t at the Drill Hall long enough to take it all in — I would need to hang out there for at least a week to properly document this place and what’s happening there. But I’m impatient and I really want to share my pictures now, so here is a quick summary.

A Brief and Incomplete Story of the Drill Hall

The Drill Hall was built in 1904 as a military headquarters and training facility. There was (and apparently still is) an underground shooting range below the Hall, and part of the building once served as an artificial limb factory for injured soldiers. The building is most famous for its role in the 1956 Treason Trial, in which 156 members of the anti-apartheid struggle, including Nelson Mandela, were arrested for treason. The prisoners were all initially held at the Drill Hall and the trial’s preliminary hearings took place there. (The trial eventually moved to Pretoria and lasted for five years. All of the accused were eventually acquitted, although Mandela and several other activists were later convicted at the Rivonia Trial in 1964.)

This square behind the Hall is a memorial to the 156 people accused in the Treason Trial. The names of all the people accused are carved into the pillars that line the square. The cool modern building across the square is the former Ster City Cinema.
Ster City Cinema
Thorsten’s sketches of the square, the Ster City Cinema, and surrounds. See more of Thorsten’s sketches at the @theThinking_Hand.

The military left the Hall in the 1990s, after the advent of democracy, and the building quickly fell into disrepair. It served as an impromptu homeless shelter for hundreds of people and was severely damaged by fire multiple times. In the early 2000s, the building underwent a major renovation by the Johannesburg Development Agency and turned into a vibrant public space. But eventually, like so many other Joburg spaces, the Drill Hall became neglected again. (For more background on the Drill Hall’s plight in recent years, read this 2021 Daily Maverick article.)

Fast-forward to current times: The Drill Hall is still neglected and abandoned by the City. But four years ago, the gang from Exotically Divine moved in and started transforming the Hall into an organic art gallery.

The gang from Exotically Divine
Three of the four members of Exotically Divine: Forest Ramushwana (left), Ayanda Dludla (middle), and Kganyapa Kganyapa (right). The fourth member, Siwe Ntombela, wasn’t there that day. The hand signals Ayanda and Kganyapa are making are, in Kganyapa’s words, “lion claws, as we stay in a concrete jungle”.

Exotically Divine was once a restaurant but it closed during covid. The group still does vegan catering, events, and various other things. But the most important thing about Exotically Divine, in the context of this story at least, is that they inhabit the Drill Hall and make the art that fills and surrounds it.

Kganyapa inside the Hall

All the sculptures and artwork in and around the Drill Hall come from thrown-away things, which the members of Exotically Divine forage from the streets of Joburg. Every single item has a story.

Plants hang in the entrance hall
Plant art hangs in the entrance hall.

The row of painted mannequin legs harkens back to the building’s former role as a limb factory. The two plastic white bros, sporting scuba goggles, sunglasses, and Mardi Gras beads, floating in a sea of dusty Corona bottles, form an installation called Sink or Swim. A wall of purses and wallets, which were stripped of their cash and cards long ago and now have plants sprouting from them, were left on the streets by petty thieves. There are shelves of dried food — corn cobs and African cucumbers and mysterious seed pods and orange peels dangling down in curly-Qs — recognizing the nutritional bounty of Africa. Delicate strings of colorful bottle caps drape around like fairy lights. Plants line the walls, hang from the ceiling, and grow from porcelain toilets and sinks. Everything growing is composted.

Food sculpture
Organic food art.
Purse and wallet wall
Purses, wallets, and hanging roots, surrounded by South African news.
Toilet garden
Toilet garden fertilized by nutshells and banana peel.
Colored cow head
Psychedelic cow head.
Literature on the wall
There’s a lot to read.
Plastic sculpture
Plastic swag.
Sink or Swim
Sink or Swim.

There’s a lot more art on the terrace, and a wild garden squeezed between the front door and the fence separating the Drill Hall from the street. The garden is thriving, even during this cold winter. There are vines of all sorts, a good-sized avocado tree reaching toward the sky, many aloes, and even a small banana tree.

On the Drill Hall's terrace
On the terrace. Can you spot the DJ?
Tire planter.
Mannequins outside
My favorite mannequin family.
Drill Hall garden
The garden has so much going on — it was hard to capture.

These words and images aren’t scratching the surface of what it looked, sounded, smelled, and felt like at the Drill Hall. I haven’t mentioned the noise from the traffic and the horns and the Maskandi music. I haven’t mentioned that the upstairs portion of the Hall is still a self-governed homeless shelter. I haven’t mentioned how much fun it was to talk to Forest, Ayanda, and Kganyapa, who have a certain way of making visitors feel like instant family — like they have all the time in the world for anyone and everyone who walks through that gate. I haven’t mentioned how safe I felt surrounded by chaos.

The Drill Hall made me feel like everything is going to be okay, and I’m actually crying a little while I type this. I don’t know how to explain. It’s Joburg.

The Exotically Divine gang


  1. Ms. Nancy Anne McDaniel

    This. Just this: “The Drill Hall made me feel like everything is going to be okay, and I’m actually crying a little while I type this. I don’t know how to explain. It’s Joburg.” LOVE!

    • primo

      I know what you mean. I lived in Joburg for 3 years in the late 80s and more than most cities, it’s a city that lives both within and without you. By that I mean that Joburg demands your participation. It requires you to dream and shape the city in your own way. The sum total of all those dreams make for an amazing energy. Once you ‘get’ Jozi, it never leaves you. I miss this city.

      • 2summers

        Wow, that’s really well said. Thank you.

  2. dizzylexa

    Those guys are amazing, I did a mushroom course with them and agree it felt like I had known them for years. I still want to get there one day, can only imagine it’s a sensory overload of the highest proportion.

    • 2summers

      Ah, I remember when you did that. I didn’t realize it was them!

  3. Josie Adler

    Infinite energy and ingenuity as people persist in “making life happen’ and ‘finding a place’ in the city! Also risky ,precarious and vulnerable. About twenty years ago a fire burned out the Drill Hall, with much loss and harm to homeless people.. If there’s a group willing to fund training in what to do (and what not to do!)and basic equipment, I’ll make a donation. I would suggest making contact with Hendrik de Klerk at Bad Boyz Security. Building the city takes nerve, guts and steadfastness.

  4. AutumnAshbough

    Life growing out of a place of violence and war and death. Solid symbolism.

  5. Barend van der Merwe

    Ja, I always learn things I never knew about my own country from…an American ????.

    Can only give my humble thanks for all your efforts. It is much appreciated.

    • 2summers

      Haha, thanks Barend.

  6. Peggy Laws

    What a wonderful find! So inspiring. (Am curious to find out where on earth you managed to park the car as it’s a very hectic area).

    • 2summers

      There is actually very safe and easy parking right next to the Hall! The street itself is crazy but once you turn in there is no problem.

  7. Ayanda Dludla

    Concrete Jugle,Softening up the City and bring live with Nature and nature Art …its all about solution orientation and thank you Heather we need more of you to share these stories of what happening in these experimental spaces as part of experience

    • 2summers

      Thank you so much, Ayanda. We will see you again soon!

  8. Warren

    Heartened to know that enterprising people are taking action , you cannot leave it to a disfunctional regiem that runs SA.

    • 2summers

      Yep, that’s exactly what Ayanda, Forest, and Kganyapa say!


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