Holding the world in your hands

2011-07-14 00:00

THE air in Durban is thick. It almost has a texture. After the thin, icy air of Johannesburg, the atmosphere in Durban is profuse. Even in winter, it seems, the humidity is palpable. There is no real winter in Durban.

Perhaps this lazy air is the reason for Durban’s typically laid-back approach to life, its mellow sensibility. Yet there is also something distinctly colonial about this city, in the architectural sediment left behind by a bygone era. Here, the architecture is as immediate as the climate; as the hills of the Berea roll towards the Indian Ocean, so too do the buildings on Florida Road clutch the curb in an antiquated and requisite splendour.

Durban is not particularly known for its art; rather, it is a peripheral outpost that is rarely noticed by an emerging art world, fighting its own economic conscriptions. Art in Durban doesn’t generally sell, and when it does, not for very much.

Nevertheless, against this backdrop artSPACE durban is following in the footsteps of its counterparts in Johannesburg and Cape Town, by opening a new project space in order to offer an alternative, non-commercial platform to artists in the city. The Collective, situated next to Ikes Books in Florida Road, is full of an old-world charm, offset by an edgy contemporary feel.

artSPACE, started in 2003 by Karen Bradtke, also has a satellite space in Berlin, which has been pivotal in its local expansion. According to Bradtke, the experience in Berlin opened the eyes of the gallery to the ever present need in Durban for an interactive space, catering to a community thought to be marginalised by the rest of the country. After being open for nearly nine years, “we’re here to stay” says Bradtke.

Only into their third exhibition, the small space seems to have a positive future. Currently showing simultaneously, are two bodies of work by photo-journalist Garth Lezard titled Defining Images: From Countries at ­Opposite Ends of Our Most Populous Continents, and Smile by Guy Anderson, which includes a book of images taken during a joy ride up the African east coast.

While the latter is a ­sentimental endeavour masquerading as photographic advocacy, Lezard’s black and white images present a nuanced affiliation to the medium of film that is rarely glimpsed in the digital arena. Lezard’s images are not the standard work of a photo-journalist, but rather present an intimate glance into the everyday life of his subjects from across the globe.

What is interesting is that his works are not centred around the typical concerns that define the documentary tradition in South Africa, but rather look beyond national borders to give a sense of place in the stillness of the captured moment. Ironically, the images of Lezard’s that seem most affected and out of place are those taken in South Africa.

A graduate of the University of Swansea in Wales, Lezard grew up in Durban and has since become nomadic in his wanderings. Recently having completed a trip from Athens to Barcelona on a bicycle, his newest body of work is a series of mother-and-child portraits. “Were you raised Catholic?’” I ask abruptly. “Funnily enough, yes,” he answers, somewhat embarrassed.

With so much photography in South Africa having a political bent, this work was refreshing. In the midst of the damp air, Lezard’s quiet moments remind the ­viewer of the grainy quality of black and white, and of the politics of the everyday in a global context.

Tucked away in this corner of the country, this exhibition reminded me of Susan Sontag, who said that photography gives one the illusion of holding the world in your hands.

Both exhibitions end on Saturday.

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