No Longer At This Address - Navigating Post-Apartheid Identities at the Durban Art Gallery
by Carol Brown
Street names are highly contentious and much more than just an address on an envelope. They are often about historical memory and construction of identity. In a recent conversation someone remarked to me that 'They are part of history and you can't change history' - an obviously naïve comment because we know that although history cannot be changed, the way we look at it and who and what we acknowledge certainly is a fluid process. One of the ways in which history in the public arena can be revisioned is by street naming. But change just for its own sake or with a political agenda is sure to provoke aggression and suspicion. The idea to mount an exhibition about this was passed on to the Durban Art Gallery by the International Relations and Governance dept of the eThekwini Municipality. Guest curators Brenton Maart and Peter Machen took the bull by the horns (so to speak, considering the recent controversy over the name eThekwini meaning 'bull's testicles'!). What sounded like a dull exhibition turned out to be one of visual and historic interest.
The exhibition is divided into two sections. The first, in the Foyer gallery presents horizontal strips of black and white photos and text wrapped around the walls between two narrow hanging bands, echoing the existing architecture. The history of the new and old street names was researched and the characters (and sometimes places) after whom the various streets were named were juxtaposed with the 'new' versions. So we learn that the Victoria Embankment was named after Queen Victoria during whose reign Durban was colonised and whose memory is still pervasive in many areas of the central city. Her place has been taken by Margaret Mncadi who was a physician and political activist and the first person to lead the ANC Women's League in Natal.
The trajectory of history continues around the walls of the gallery reading like a film strip which darts back and forth in time. Sometimes a bland functional name like 'Northern Freeway' has become the opportunity to honour a hero like Ruth First who was an influential journalist and communist assassinated by a letter bomb in 1982. The non linearity of the approach works well and emphasizes how history is layered and how changes have been made. The achievements of the new order highlight the absences of the past and make us realize that maybe it is time to put some of the old heroes aside to make room for the new.
The second section of the exhibition, featuring work by the Imvunge Street Photographers, is in the circular gallery (traditionally the Victorian gallery) and, as its curator Brenton Maart describes it, is 'social architecture', where form and function merge with societies. The Durban Art Gallery established a programme in 1996 where this group of street photographers became integrated into its programme, meeting once a week and participating in various exhibitions. The first was an exhibition alongside the World Press Photo Award exhibition followed by other initiatives such as the 'Aids 2000' exhibition. Their take on the city is a different one from the majority of documentary photographs in that they have lived and worked in the areas (and still do) which they document, and where they have an intimate knowledge of the people and spaces they have observed over many decades.
They are part of the community in the truest sense. They were commissioned to take photographs of the streets which had new names and have concentrated on the people living there and how they claim their spaces. It is a rich and layered picture of Durban where the importance of the architecture has been overshadowed by the power of the people 'colonising' the spaces, providing an interesting counterpoint to the stories of the early colonists who, in a different way, made the spaces to reflect their ideology and power. Seeing the balance of power challenged in this way gave the exhibition a sense of excitement and strength.
The display of these photographs was visually enticing and the way they were grouped formed pockets of interest, an experience distinct from our usual engagement with sophisticated large scale images. Comparing this with the Santu Mofokeng exhibition in an adjacent gallery makes an interesting (if unintentional) juxtaposition of different ways in which photos can perform. This can be interrogated on the level of the scale of the photos and the sense of space or lack of space between the images. Mofokeng's enlarged works each lead us into a separate world where the crossover between spirituality and reality is contained in each frame. The Imvunge Group's images are about a crowded city much in the way other African cities are portrayed. I thought of a film about Lagos by architect Rem Koolhaus which showed a seemingly chaotic, bustling African city but which had a hidden structure and order and where everything worked without seeming obvious.
Finally, a section of the circular gallery wall was given over to Graffiti artists - The African Raw Talent Crew - who produced a large mural on the internal wall. This contemporary, anti-establishment statement was an affirmation of the ability of a city's residents to claim their own space and to add another layer to established buildings bearing the weight of a different history.
Opens: September 28
Closes: October 31
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