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BREATHING SPACES (article first published : 2007-08-7)

Breathing Spaces; Environmental Portraits of Durban's Industrial South is running at the Durban Art Gallery until August 21. It is a photographic exploration of three Durban neighbourhoods Wentworth, Merebank and Lamontville. The exhibition consists of photography by Jenny Gordon from Rhodes School of Journalism and Media Studies and research by Marijke du Toit of Historical Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Central to Breathing Spaces, a project initiated in 2002 and curated by both women, are Jenny Gordon's panoramic landscape photographs and her portraits of South Durban residents. These are visually compelling and complex images of individuals living within highly challenging environments, and images of the breathing spaces that they have created for themselves.

The exhibition also brings together different photographic genres that have more often been kept apart. Jenny Gordon's photographs are juxtaposed with decades-old studio and other family photographs drawn from the personal collections of people living in the South Durban neighbourhoods. These are accompanied by images taken by residents - adults and teenagers - during photography workshops taught by Jenny Gordon.

Durban's urban geography reflects race and class inequities that persist beyond apartheid. Wentworth, Merebank and Lamontville (formerly categorised under apartheid as 'coloured', Indian' and 'African') are located in the immediate vicinity of refineries and other industry. The area has been the centre of much controversy and activism about the levels of industrial pollution experienced by residents. Jenny Gordon worked with local organisations and socially-involved individuals as a way of opening up themes for her photography. As a result, the exhibition inquires into what it means to live in an environment still strongly structured by the geographies of apartheid city planning, by poverty and industrial pollution.

This is a photographic representation of lives in Durban's residential-industrial hinterland, a part of the city with rich local cultures and histories that have remained excluded from Durban's visual identity as a city. The exhibition explores how environmental injustice translates into day-to-day living and how people have made lives for themselves, also asking questions about gender and identity, and the experience of people from different generations. The photographs will be accompanied by extracts from interviews that seek to historicise and bring a range of personal and 'local' responses to the photographs into the space of the exhibition.

The sponsors of this project were the Royal Netherlands Embassy, the Centre for Civil Society (UKZN) and the National Research Foundation of South Africa. The exhibition is complemented by an educational programme in the form of guided tours for local schools and a focused workshop series that will explore possibilities for auto-biographical and other creative writing inspired by the exhibition photographs.

Participants will be residents from South Durban, mostly persons who introduced Jenny Gordon to themes for her photography and 'graduates' from the photographic workshops.




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