The Art of Performance is a monthly column written by Dave Mann, an editor and award-winning arts journalist.
As far as major South African cities go, Durban is easily one of the prettiest. Cape Town has its mountains and seasides, Joburg has its gritty charm and busy people, and Durban has just about everything else. I was there recently to play my part in putting together a group exhibition at the KZNSA Gallery. I anticipated spending most of my time at the gallery itself, placing and mounting artworks, running publicity, printing flyers and zines and working with the rest of the team to pull off the project. As it turns out, I also managed to take in a great deal of the city’s artistic offerings during my stay, and trust me when I say there are many. On a balmy afternoon during my first day there, I found myself in an artsy Glenwood flat, rented out by a writer and a painter. Outside the flat, vervet monkeys draped themselves along the walls and dashed through rings of barbed wire, while a cool breeze moved in through the windows, fresh off the sea. Inside, we sat sipping coffee on worn couches, surrounded by canvases and sketches and long, colourful materials. It was the quintessential artist’s home. We got to speaking about Durban’s creative scene – one that’s often viewed as lacking by those who live elsewhere. It’s a common perception, sadly. Durban, unlike Cape Town and Johannesburg, is said to possess a somewhat insular and slow-moving creative industry, never quite keeping up with the pace. ‘It’s not lacking,’ says the painterly half of the duo, Mook Lion. ‘There’s loads going on here, we just move at a slower pace, you know? But we’re really tight-knit, we’re really supportive. If someone brings something new out, everyone will show up to support them.’
Later that day, I joined some friends for an impromptu (because that’s how it goes in Durban) drink at S43, a new venue situated in Station Drive. The place is industrial, but sharp. They’ve got good food, strong cocktails, and a small selection of craft beers brewed on site. On show that night was a group performance of sorts – part spoken word, part physical theatre, part musical performance. Titled Conversations with Lovers, the show was an artistic investigation into the realities of modern day love, and featured artists such as Gcina Shange, Thobi Maphanga, DJ Thanda and more. By the time the performers kicked off, the venue was packed. Almost everyone who came through that night came to see a friend of theirs perform. The show was brilliant. Multifaceted, but condensed enough to hold attention. Thematically complex, but universally accessible. Raw, sad, and impassioned, but somehow still humorous. The performances took place in-between tables, next to the bar, in the corner next to the kitchen, but rarely up front near the stage. Throughout the show, no one left their seats. I thought about the painter on his worn couch in his artsy Glenwood flat and what he had said about support for the scene. I thought about Joburg and Cape Town and all of the overtly ‘creative’ types who live in those cities and how difficult it can be to rally support as a young artist living in a so-called creative hub. Durban, for all of its haphazard planning and blatant disregard for time, sure knows how to draw a crowd. A few nights later, a group of us found ourselves at an inconspicuous watering hole called Badgers. Shared tables and shared Black Label quarts are the only unspoken rules at Badgers, making for some great conversation with total strangers. A photographer started telling us about a performer by the name of Nipho Hurd, Durban’s latest musical talking point. Rumour has it that Hurd will be the next big musician to come out of Durban.
‘She’s being booked by everyone at the moment and she totally killed it at Interpret Durban the other night,’ says the photographer. ‘The city latches onto people like that – they just focus all their time and energy on one person or act and build them up. A while ago it was Red Robyn being booked by everyone here, and now she’s starting to book gigs in Cape Town and Jozi.’ A few days later, driving through the leafy highway into the city, I passed a large blue crane painted earlier this year by a few Durban graffiti writers in long, colourful lines. It was one of a few South African animals the group had put up throughout the city, each one in a different colour, but all of them on the expansive stretches of supporting concrete beneath Durban’s highway bridges. I remember seeing one of them, a pink hippo, during my previous trip. It’s been buffed out since then – the diligent work of the city’s anti-graffiti unit. Later on, during the drive, I moved past the bridge previously occupied by the hippo, curious to see if anything had taken its place. Sure enough, someone had painted in big, black letters, the question: ‘Where did the hippo go?’ I love that about graffiti. For a medium that’s carried out under the cover of darkness and most often with the utmost secrecy, the kind of public dialogue it sparks between both artist and general public is entirely unique. Here was an ordinary wall, bare and bland, until someone came along and roller-painted a large, bright hippo onto it. The city responded by painting over the hippo, returning the wall to its former state and most likely believing that the conversation would end there. Later, another artist came along and posed a question that many may have asked themselves whenever they drove past. Where did the hippo go? Your move, city of Durban.
The very next day, I walked into Umbilo Road’s Greencamp Gallery Project, a communal art hub and free space project we decided to throw a small party at, to end off our exhibition walkabout. There I met a street artist whose name I can’t put in print, but who’s put up many an artwork around the city. ‘I used to bust tags up everywhere and do a lot of bombing,’ he tells me. ‘Nowadays I’m more into the street art side of things and I mostly do stencils and bits of text.’ As it turns out, the pertinent question about the case of Durban’s missing hippo was painted by none other than himself, just two nights earlier. And stranger still – one of the artists who painted the hippo also happened to be there that day. Only in Durban, right? ‘Durban’s really big, man. Creatively, it can feel small, I guess, but I think that’s just because we’re all really stoked to see fellow artists do their thing,’ the street artist says. ‘A lot of artists here get big and then move to Cape Town or Joburg so when you do see someone here who’s doing really well, you show them love, man! So in that way, we all get to know each other. It’s small, but it’s thriving.’
Just before we pack things up at Greencamp, an artist and her sound crew stroll in. She greets us, warmly, and tells us to pull through to a house party she’s performing at that night. ‘I don’t even know how to explain it, but basically, this rich couple saw me perform at Interpret Durban and asked me to come and perform at their house,’ says the artist. ‘They’re paying for everything, man. Come through, it’ll be fun. Oh, and I’m Nipho by the way. Nipho Hurd.’ Only in Durban. Now I’m not pretending that spending seven sociable days in the city of Durban makes me at all familiar with the inner workings of its creative scene, but in seven days, I did see levels of collaboration and passion that I haven’t seen in all my years of living and working in Joburg and Cape Town. Perhaps it’s the scale of the scene that makes it so tight-knit, or maybe I just caught Durban during an incredibly productive week. Honestly, I think it’s the people that make Durban’s creative scene so incredible. Cheesy, I know, but it’s true. Great art and passionate performance exist in abundance across all three of South Africa’s major cities, but when it comes to a truly supportive and self-nurturing creative industry, Durban’s got it waxed.