Clean and decent: Peter Engblom refurbishes the Durban Art Gallery's water closets
by Francesca Verga
The Durban City Hall, built in 1910 by Stanley G. Hudson, is a replica of the Belfast City Hall. Home to the Durban Art Gallery, and is classed as typical colonial-style architecture and is furnished with all the trimmings and décor of the period, including grand stairways, stained glass windows, red carpets, large galleries and elaborate brasswork detailing on the staircase railings.
It is with this kind of grandeur in mind that 'Zululand's pre-eminent exhibitionist', Peter Engblom, was commissioned to give the art gallery toilet facilities a face-lift. Engblom is renowned for his witty, sometimes strange and unlikely associations as evidenced in work like Zulu Sushi, which was a wry take on cultural impropriety under the pretext of mythological historical discovery.
Upon entering the toilets, one is pleasantly surprised by what are probably the classiest public lavatories in the whole of Durban's city centre. Collage elements, sourced from secondhand books on the history of the water closet, occupy every available wall surface. Detailed images and accompanying text on the history and development of water closets include those such as the Pedestal Lion Closet, a portable water closet of 1882, along with elaborate floral W.C. decorations such as the Blue Magnolia Design and the Mulberry Peach Decoration. Text detailing the workings of the early W.C and humorous incidents involving early models is also provided in typical Engblom style.
The wooden doorframes are stained gold, in keeping with the imitation gold-leaf mirror frames, referencing the Victorian style frames that hang in the surrounding galleries. The elaborate chandelier-like light fitting comprises elegant individual lightboxes, each embellished with the image of a single red rose. Although these do not give off much light, other lighting provides more adequate illumination.
The inclusion of photographs of storage spaces and stores in the art gallery provide an interesting chance for the contemplation of museum politics and the unseen systems that are necessary to sustain an art gallery's collection. The decoration process and choice of subject matter reveal many interesting facts about this space and are a fascinating journey into the history of something we pretty much take for granted.
In an interesting addition to his collage, Engblom has chosen to include spaces for the tagging and graffiti that is (unfortunately) bound to re-surface. Although this is not quite obvious, chalk pieces are to be provided he assures.
Durban Art Gallery
2nd Floor City Hall, Smith Street, Durban
Tel: (031) 311 2264
Fax: (031) 311 2273
Hours: Mon - Sat 8:30am - 4pm, Sun 11am - 4pm