Breathing Spaces

The complex social and physical elements of the Durban Bluff are the locus for the photographic exhibition Breathing Spaces recently shown at the Durban Art Gallery. This is a multi-disciplinary collaboration between University of KwaZulu-Natal History lecturer, Marijke du Toit and Rhodes University photography lecturer, Jenny Gordon.

The Bluff is a natural landmass jutting out to the sea. Its intrusive shape carries a history of having served as an army barracks, a whaling station and now as home to the workers employed by the local oil refineries and factories. This iconic landmark has given rise to various artworks most noticeably those by Clive van den Berg during the eighties where he used it as a symbol of male identityThe exhibition concentrates mainly on the social implications of the area but its curation carries complex suggestions of how the landscape and its spaces are constructed and how they affect the health and well being of its population. Richly coloured photographic panoramic views, seamed together from multiple images, stretch across the walls of the elegant Edwardian gallery ironically symbolic of the privileges of the Durban settler population from whence the city’s industrial power grew. We are at first seduced by what appear to be twinkling lights echoing the ships at sea but on closer examination reveal themselves to be machines which discharge dangerous emissions into the homes dwarfed by the overarching giant chimneys which punctuate the landscape. The initial glamour becomes transformed as we are led along a carefully constructed journey to see what is often hidden from public view. The visual path is ordered by wire panels and visual codes such as size and difference in photographic presentation. We are made aware of both the interior and exterior of local homes where objects and black and white photographs tell stories of the past whilst building up personal archives of family history in a community whose lives have changed with the increased industrialization of the area resulting in unacceptably high levels of pollution and illness among the inhabitants. The exhibition forms part of a much larger project which was started in 2002 and is still ongoing and being shown in various manifestations in different spaces which include neighbourhood libraries and the UKZN campus. Photographic workshops and sustainable interaction with the various participants give it a far wider reach than that of the traditional art gallery audience.
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