Letter from Durban
When Zen Marie picked me up at Durban International Airport, looking like a lead character from Starsky and Hutch in his bright floral shirt and straw hat, I should have known I was in for an interesting time. I had arrived to take part in a weeklong exhibition and series of events at the NSA Gallery as part of the work of Galerie Puta.
Zen was "missioning" for the Puta, (an activity he usually does with consummate ease and skill for his grandmother, parents and other members of his family) while preparing for his participation in a major group show to be curated by Zayd Minty at the NSA in June.
The Galerie Puta event was received well by the seemingly small but incredibly loyal Durban art crowd. I decided to write this letter to convey some of my sense of amazement and positivity towards the way things seem to happen in Durban, as opposed to Cape Town, and also to send out a thank you to all who made the events work so well.
The NSA, for those of you who have never been there, is a truly beautiful building, completed less than a decade ago. I had the good fortune to meet the architect, usually resident in London, who came to the opening of the show and I gushed to her about the wonders of the space.
On one side, the gallery is separated from an adjoining small park and outdoors area by a restaurant. Incredibly there is no solid wall between this outdoor area and the restaurant, but rather an open wooden lattice-like structure. The large gate and grill that demarcate the gallery space are also open to the elements, meaning that air flows freely from the outside to the inside of the gallery at all times, day and night. Only in Durban with its wonderful winter weather!
Storm Janse van Rensburg is the director of the NSA and all with whom I spoke agreed that he has managed to make it a truly cutting-edge space for art in a relatively short space of time. Next year the NSA will celebrate its centenary and he and his committee have seen to it that it will turn one hundred not as a doddering fossil but as a trendy, hot and relevant place for Contemporary art to be seen and appreciated.
Cameron Platter, Ed Young and myself decided to make our intervention in the form of three simultaneous solo shows, all titled 'Storm�. Andrew Verster later commented that he thought that this was in reference to, and in recognition of what Storm had done. Unfortunately, Andrew did not realise that we at Galerie Puta would never do something so selfless and perceptive.
Andrew Verster made his observation while doing a "walkabout" of our exhibition. We had planned on asking leading members of Durban�s art community to do this and he and Carol Brown (assisted by the Pleasure Correspondent [I kid you not] from the Saturday Independent newspaper, Peter Machen) gave two such presentations. They were all incredibly good sports, agreeing immediately in spite of pressing schedules in both cases, and doing so with humour and wit as befits a Puta event.
Carol�s walkabout involved hours of work by her and Peter (as well as various family members it would seem) where they essentially destroyed our exhibition, writing scurrilous graffiti on the walls (which we had to paint over later!), painting over several works (including one on reserve [the lawyer�s letter is in the post�]), "improving" others and generally out-Putaing the Putas.
The name Puta, as you know, is Spanish for "prostitute" and there were a couple of references in the local papers to "whores of Babylon" and the like. I cannot express how amazed I was that Carol Brown, the director of the Durban Art Gallery, and Andrew Verster, one of South Africa�s most esteemed artists, would put this much effort into people they hardly knew and to whom they owed nothing.
This amazement continued throughout the trip when I found that in almost every sphere Durbanites are friendly, helpful, generous to a fault and openhearted. When Carol invited us for a guided tour of her gallery we left in amazement at how this human dynamo had built up a superb collection.
The DAG�s collection can rival any other institutional collection as far as the last ten years goes, which is quite an achievement on its impossibly small budget. Aside from the collection Carol offered a good hour of informed and intelligent discussion on art; gave us a new understanding of the Red Eye events, which have brought art to a sector of Durban�s citizenry that would never look inside a gallery. Most exciting of all, though, was the armful of catalogues she gave each of us - and even a set for my institution�s library to boot.
This is typical of the sort of response I got, and I couldn�t help but draw unfavourable comparisons with my home, Cape Town, with its often mean-spirited, social-rank-obsessed and generally unwelcoming fa�ade that seems to be visible more and more often these days.
While Galerie Puta is clearly about having fun with art, everyone still took it seriously (even a very irritating person who asked endlessly irritating questions during an evening HotTopic Q&A session that was held at the gallery). Even as they destroyed our work, Carol and Peter were doing so with understanding of what it was that we were about. Durbanites seem to engage with art in a way that few of my townspeople do.
The HotTopic series is organised by Hillary Graham, who also teaches Theory and Practice of Art at the DIT, and was another example of the hospitality I have spoken of. After we did an early morning seminar with one of his classes, Graham invited all of us over to his house for a braai on the weekend.
This letter has gone on too long, but I wish to conclude by noting that everything seems to be just dandy in Durban's art world as far as I can see. I understand that it is quite small but that smallness may in part have caused it to engage with the worlds of dance, theatre, fashion and music in ways that I have never seen anywhere else in insular South Africa.
During my time there I encountered almost no bitchiness, so universal in my town, but only true, genuine support for any sincere worker in the arts field. This was beautifully illustrated by the "coffee room" in gallerist Karen Bradtke�s spacious and inviting new gallery, artSPACE Durban, where not only are all the flyers of all the shows (and not just art but also theatre, fashion, dance, etc.) to be found, but also proudly pinned up are positive reviews from rival galleries.
I look forward to witnessing such a spirit in Cape Town. And maybe we will still get that spirit. One person who seemed ever-present although physically absent during the entire period of the excursion was Virginia MacKenny. Her name came up constantly, invariably accompanied by a sigh and not infrequently with a touch of moisture appearing in the eyes of the speaker.
Virginia was Durban�s top art critic, an artist and a teacher who left generations of students with nothing but love and respect for her (not to mention superb training). She has clearly made an astonishing contribution to Durban�s art structure. She has now moved from the DIT to teach at Michaelis in Cape Town.
Now I have gone on and on about how nice Durbanites are and how beastly Capetonians are as if I were not a part of the latter bunch. So, I�ll sign off with on typically ungenerous, thankless Cape Town note and say sorry Durban, your loss is our gain! But seriously, I think Durban has a great deal to teach me about how to conduct myself in the sphere of art and I am sincerely grateful for this, first, lesson.