Archive: Issue No. 121, September 2007

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'Breathing Spaces' at Durban Art Gallery
by Carol Brown

It is a now, I think, a pretty undisputed fact that museums have changed their roles from what Duncan Cameron called the 'temple' to the 'forum'. This is all part of the postmodern way of looking at the world and, in particular, artistic endeavour where art has come to mean more than the celebration of individual genius. It is accepted that ways of recording and analyzing the world have moved out of the academy into the public sphere and museums should be places which generate debate, highlight social issues and be used as catalysts for social change.

This role is well exemplified by 'Breathing Spaces' which has been on view at the Durban Art Gallery. The exhibition is the result of an interdisciplinary partnership between Jenny Gordon, a photographer and lecturer at Rhodes University, and Marijke du Toit, an historian at the History Department of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Their project, which has been ongoing since 2002, has been to document a particular area of Durban - that which is known as the South Basin. It incorporates the working class suburbs of Merebank, Wentworth and Lamontville where there are many oil refineries and other industries which have caused heavy pollution, resulting in a community who have suffered ill health for many years. The area is part of what is known as the Bluff which has in the past been an army barracks, a whaling station and an iconic element of the Durban landscape jutting out in the sea. Its complex social and physical elements, both past and present, leave the situation of this exhibition open to many interpretations involving the landscape and its social implications.

Although the exhibition concentrates mainly on the social issues of the area there is always a suggestion of how the landscape and its spaces are constructed. This underpins the emphasis on the inhabitants. One of the major issues is that the area is mainly an industrial one which attracted work and a community developed around this economic factor. The major oil refineries and other factories dominate the landscape and this is the first impression one has on entering the exhibition. Gordon's richly coloured panoramic landscapes stretch across the walls of the gallery. They give a view of, what at first, appear to be twinkling glamorous lights echoing the ships at sea but on closer examination reveal themselves to be machines which spew out dangerous emissions into the homes which are dwarfed by the overarching giant spewing black smoke into the air.

These dramatic symbols of industry and its concomitant labour are in fact beacons which lead us further into the exhibition where we encounter the quieter, more intimate and often hidden spaces of the domestic interiors. The layout of the exhibition is well conceived as the larger, dramatic pictures occupy the grand, institutional walls of the Edwardian building whilst we view other images on a walk through the trajectory of wire covered panels which are reminiscent of the ubiquitous security fences erected around South African suburbs. They also form a contrast between power and fragility which is constantly played out in the photographs of the inhabitants of this area.

A major issue addressed in the exhibition is the ill health and dis-ease of the population who are engulfed by their noxious environment. The photos are documentary in nature and show interior domestic spaces where the narratives of illness and confinement are often hidden from the public gaze. Many of these photos consciously place people in a specific context with the objects which they treasure around them, emphasizing personal narratives. Illness is not always apparent but visual clues, such as the presence of an asthma pump, bring an awareness of the lives being led. These images are juxtaposed with photos taken by members of the community who are thus given a voice in the exhibition. This is an approach which is becoming more prevalent among activist curators and artists and one which is long overdue. The sense of agency is further developed by exhibiting older family portraits, also adding an historical dimension to the discourse. This building up of an archive gives the impression of a process over a period of time rather than just commenting on the momentary as is the case with much documentary photography.

This exhibition forms part of a much larger project which has been ongoing since 2002 and which has been shown in various manifestations in different spaces including neighbourhood libraries and the UKZN campus. Workshops are being held with various groups many of whom have benefited from learning the skills of photography whilst being sensitized to environmental issues. At each venue comments are elicited from the viewers who are then able to participate fully in the process and become part of the archive of the exhibition.

The project is an excellent example of how art can be genuinely socially committed and where the voices of the curators are shared with those of the subjects in a manner which is empowering and still satisfies the aesthetic demands of a fine exhibition.

The exhibition will be moving to other venues, details of which are to be announced.

Opens: July 12
Closes: August 21