Global travellers looking for a new way to discover Johannesburg and Cape Town need look no further than First Thursdays, the burgeoning art, design and urbanism gatherings that have become a firm favourite amongst savvy locals.

Tapping into a global movement of like-minded events worldwide, First Thursdays launched in Cape Town in 2012, the brainchild of local creatives Michael Tymbios and Gareth Pearson, who were inspired by a similar gathering in London. With a background in the city’s creative industry, Tymbios and Pearson also wanted to combine their love for urbanism and art into a project that would help to energise inner-city spaces and promote a broader enthusiasm for home-grown creative industries.

The concept is simple: on the first Thursday of each month inner-city galleries, museums and cultural attractions stay open until the late-evening (typically 9pm), encouraging locals, city dwellers and tourists to take to the streets to discover up-and-coming artists and cutting-edge exhibitions. The official selection of galleries and cultural attractions changes both quarterly and monthly, with an updated First Thursday Google-map helping visitors to plan their evening.

On recent Thursdays, highlights have included the Eclectica Print Gallery, Gallery MOMO, and the intimate Voorkamer Gallery of Chandler House. It’s not all about art and design though. Textiles from Plettenberg Bay-based Mungo are on show at their inner-city micro-mill and store, while Cape Electric Tattoo and contemporary jeweller Olive Green Cat both draw in Thursdays fans.

Aside from making galleries more accessible to both locals and visitors, First Thursdays transforms the streets of Cape Town each month as thousands of visitors wander between exhibitions, galleries and museums. Admittance is free, and artists are encouraged to attend to showcase their works and engage with visitors in person. While art galleries form the hub of First Thursdays, it has also proven a boon for bars and restaurants in the Cape Town city centre. Tables at the most sought-after restaurants – the likes of La Tete by nose-to-tail chef Giles Edwards – are booked up well in advance. Public squares also play host to food trucks and live music, further encouraging visitors to take to the streets. The focus is firmly on exploring the city by foot, so venues tend to be situated a short distance from each other. In Cape Town, the bulk of the participating galleries are clustered along around Bree and Church Streets.

With the success of First Thursdays in Cape Town, little wonder Tymbios and Pearson branched out to Johannesburg in May 2015. Inner-city Johannesburg’s reputation for crime and grime is slowly being scrubbed clean, and First Thursdays Johannesburg is a shot in the arm for efforts to rejuvenate the city’s once-legendary nightlife.

First Thursdays runs in Braamfontein and the trendy Maboneng precinct, where the likes of the Wits School of Arts, Stevenson Gallery and Origins Centre throw open their doors into the evening. The Museum of African Design is one venue not to be missed: the first design-focused museum in Africa bills itself as a ‘cultural hub’, and hosts DJs and artists on First Thursdays.

If the inner city sounds a little too adventurous, First Thursdays events also take place in the leafy suburb of Rosebank; home to some of the finest contemporary art galleries in the country. The Goodman Gallery’s ‘In Context: Africans in America’ exhibition is a current highlight, while Everard Read revels in its reputation as the oldest commercial art gallery on the continent. For while travellers to Africa may look to the scenic winelands or wild safari reserves for inspiration and wonder, urban events like First Thursdays show that the pulse of the continent beats loudest in the heart of its vibrant cities.

All images by The Thursdays on Instagram

John Segar

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