Home is Where the Art is

Through careful restoration and a warm, functional approach, artist Joni Brenner’s Joburg apartment became both a showcase for her work and a thing of beauty in itself.

Elsa Young

On entering artist Joni Brenner and her husband Scott Hazelhurst’s top-floor apartment in Houghton, Johannesburg, you’re met by two large sculptures of abstracted human skulls resting calmly on the floor in the entrance hall. 

As your eye traverses the open-plan living area, it finds artworks from Joni’s practice scattered throughout the space like artefacts at an archeological dig. Monochromatic impasto paintings are displayed in cases on the walls or inconspicuously placed on bookshelves, while small nebulous sculptures nestle among beaded mats and wooden bowls on the dining-room table and other surfaces. In fact, everywhere you look, there are traces of her immensely contemplative art radiating out from her home studio, which is like the beating heart of this abode.    

Joni’s work is focused on portraiture. Over the years, she has become less interested in notions of likeness in favour of exploring the composite and fragmented view that a portrait of a person presents, as well as the ephemeral relationship between the artist and model. For almost 20 years, she painted the same individual each week until his death in 2010. While in studio with a model, Joni says she is completely immersed in the moment and the act of painting in response to the body before her. It is only afterwards that she reviews her work, processes what she’s created and contemplates its success or shortfalls. ‘You really get to know your work, living with it,’ she says, explaining that this helps her tell whether a piece is finished or requires more attention. 

A principal tutor of art history at the Wits School of Arts, Joni says having her studio at home keeps her grounded and connected to her own art making. ‘When I’m teaching a lot, it becomes really important for me to be able to come in here and just paint a few brush strokes in the morning and a few more in the evening. It feels a bit like remembering who I am.’

The other project taking up much of Joni’s time began as a side venture and has mushroomed into something beyond anyone’s expectations – least of all her own. In 2011 she began working with the Marigold cooperative in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, which specialises in loomed beadwork. She supplied the beaders with refined designs and introduced the principle of small design shifts. The results of this collaboration are superbly simple, covetable beaded necklaces that sit comfortably at the intersection of art, design and fashion.

As introspective as her art is, Joni considers their apartment an open house, and enjoys having a range of people visit and pass through it. She says selling the Marigold necklaces from her home ‘brings an amazing number of people into the flat who recognise and appreciate beauty’.

There’s no dead space here. Each corner is lived in and functional. It was through the Marigold project that one problematic corner of the flat finally found a use: the sunroom on the eastern side of the dining-cum-living space was converted into a shop nook with the addition of flat shelves and Perspex display units. 

When she and Scott moved into the apartment in 2013, they set about restoring it to its original state. Working with architect Briget Grosskopff of GLH & Associates (a university friend of Joni’s), they obtained the initial plans for the flat and set about undoing the kitchen and bathroom renovations that had been added by previous owners. 

Another interesting feature of Joni and Scott’s home is the way in which art is displayed. In the living room and bedroom, artworks are stacked along a wooden shelf, made by Henry Warburton of Jigsaw Joinery, above the skirting board. This enables her to move art around frequently without having to commit to a permanent hanging display. 

Bathed in warm light throughout the day, with syncopated shadow patterns cast on the walls by plantation shutters, the apartment is a refuge of quiet and calm away from the bustling world outside. It is a trove of beautiful objects for the eye to take in – Joni’s own artworks, those of her contemporaries and craft pieces take pride of place in every room. Everything is considered, thoughtfully and lovingly placed, which means the apartment is homely rather than gallery-like. Musing on the idea of home, Joni says that for her it’s a soft, inviting and comfortable space. Just like this one.