'Mari Mira' or 'Fancy Shackland' - A project co-ordinated by Guy-Andre Lagesse
by Virginia MacKenny
Projects initiated by foreigners on our soil are increasingly received with suspicion instead of the welcoming embrace of previous years. In the time-honoured tradition of colonisation, they tend to take what they need and then depart, leaving the "natives" with little or nothing. Projects are often spawned from a desiccated Europe or United States that seeks to reinvigorate itself with some "primitive" and primal energy; the funding comes and goes, as do the artists, curators and their publicists, who then move on to the next "chic" or politically greener pasture.
French artist Guy-Andre Lagesse travels the world seeking out communities and individuals who engage with their ordinary environments in a poetic way - with what he terms the "shack spirit". His project 'Mari-Mira' (in Mauritian Creole slang 'Mari-Mira' is loosely translated as "enormously fantastic" or "terribly eccentric") seems, however, to overcome some of the aforementioned problems. Funded largely by the French Institute of South Africa, which continues to pump a great deal of effort and money into the cultural life of South Africa, the Durban-born Lagesse realised the project with the aid of a number of local artists, including Jabulani Mhlabini, Sbusiso Mbele, Pat Khanye and Rafs Mayet, as well as students from the Fine Art Department of the Durban Institute of Technology (formerly Technikon Natal).
Currently occupying a site near North Beach in front of the Military Museum, 'Mari Mira' was first conceived in 1994 by Lagesse and Jean-Paul Curnier, a
French philosopher. Initiated when Lagesse became fascinated with the inventive solutions that locals came up with in Mauritius, reclaiming and reusing the ordinary detritus of society to embellish their homes, this moveable feast of a village has risen in a variety of incarnations; first in Port Louis in Mauritius (1995), then Marseilles (1996) and Paris (1999), and now Durban.
Lagesse started the project by building a house in concrete blocks (much valued in cyclone-ridden Mauritius) and filling it with an array of ingenious multi-functional objects - like the basin which doubles at night as a lampshade, or the bed that becomes a dining room table and the cupboards that swivel closed to become elaborate bedposts. Each item is conceived as flexible - even the "wallpaper" is interchangeable each day as it slides out on tracks from the wall.
As the project travels to each new venue it gains new surprises - in Marseilles the huge driftwood logs that wash up on the shores were pulled into action for all sorts of functions including a game of table football. In Paris a whole new series of objects were created from the familiar green municipal dustbins seen on Parisian street corners. From these emerged a lookout tower, a philosophical or lovers' seat, a concertina cinema with the monitor buried in the bin and a shower.
In Durban a house of black and white tyres arose. Such tyres find a myriad uses in the South African landscape, from house building to shoes. Here they form the perimeter of a structure decorated with ceramic heads as fountains by ceramicist Mhlabini. The entrance is hung with curtains fabricated by Pat Khanye out of plastic bags, and a "roof garden", albeit an inverted one, of tin can metal flowers lights up in response to different sounds so whooping kids passing through produce a flickering visual symphony.
Over a period of two months the site was transformed into a place of discovery, whimsy and delight. At night particularly, the area is a glittering wonderland punctuated by chandeliers and floating lighted flowers made from cool drink bottles and straws. 'Mari Mira' is a collaborative project of great success, one that brings back our sense of wonder at the power of the imagination to transform the discarded into something beautiful. Despite being peppered with French phrases undecipherable to the majority of the local population, 'Mari-Mira' fulfils its own brief of creating relationships beyond social boundaries, judging by the number of people of all ages and colours delightedly engaging with it. Providing a platform for discussion, imaginative play and human interaction, it is well worth the visit.
Until July 31