Art and Culture - Durban Experience

Monaltrie' 59 Musgrave Road Designed in 1897, restored in 1985, proclaimed a National Monument on 10 March 1989

Art and Culture - Durban Experience, South Africa

Nowhere is the diverse and cosmopolitan heritage of Durban better exemplified than in its architecture. The influences of Asian, Zulu, English Colonial and Afrikaans cultures have made the city a treasure house of architectural styles. As well as the major influences of Victorian, Edwardian, Union, Berea, Oriental and Art Deco styles, many rare and obscure styles have been preserved here.

Durban is considered to have one of the best selection of Art Deco architecture of Stampany city in the world. Art Deco emerged in the 1920s, capturing the spirit of the Jazz age for Durban designers. This radical new architectural style signified a break-away from British Imperialism. What is particularly interesting is that the style was applied not only to commercial buildings, but to residential properties too.

From stunning Art Deco residential blocks and colonial homes on the Berea, to the fascinating buildings in the Grey Street area where traders have operated family businesses since the turn of the century, Durban's architecture is quite astonishing in its quality and diversity.

If cultural diversity were the criterion for choosing the capital of the new South Africa, then Durban would be the only city in the running. In a country dubbed the Rainbow Nation, this port city is blessed with the most vibrant mix of the ethnic and cultural paint brush. The metropolis is home to three major social groupings, each with its own rich history and traditions.

It was the labour of the noble descendants of Shaka's mighty Zulu Nation which made the city the commercial and industrial hub of the province. Now with the demise of apartheid, they have become the major political force in the region with members of both the two biggest parties, the ANC and IFP proud to be called Zulus.

The quirks and mannerisms of the British settlers in Natal earned the province its nickname of Last Outpost of the British Empire. Now the great-great-grandchildren of those hardy pioneers consider themselves as South African as their Zulu neighbours.

The forerunners of Durban's thriving Indian community arrived in Durban as penniless indentured labourers last century. Since then they have built themselves into a force to be reckoned with, in the fields of commerce, culture and politics.

Apart from the big three, Durban is also home to people of Dutch, Portuguese and Chinese decent to name only a few. And many of them are second or third generation Durbanites. With such a tapestry as a backdrop, it's little wonder then that the city has such a rich cultural and artistic life.

Cultural enthusiasts will be greeted by a kaleidoscope of Indian, Colonial and African traditions that have prospered in the city and given rise to a wide variety of food, restaurants, arts and crafts, and ethnic dance forms.

Art And Crafts

African arts and crafts have existed for centuries in traditional societies. Parents were responsible for transmitting the folklore, poetry and craft traditions to their children. In urban areas the lack of suitable raw materials for craftwork has resulted in the use of alternative materials, such as plastic bags to weave floormats or telephone wires to weave baskets, which has led to some innovative and creative work. Durban has some very special Art Centres working on ambitious educational projects to futher the talents of local people, for example:

The African Art Centre - encourages works of creativity, originality and quality as opposed to curios. Thirty years ago - in 1959 - the concept of the African Arts Centre began as a box of beads in the offices of the Institute of Race Relations in their Guildhall Arcade premises in Durban's Tourist Junction. The motivation was, and still is, to promote African artists and Zulu arts and crafts.

Jo Thorpe, the secretary of the institute was an enthusiastic art lover. Under Jo's care, the box of beads exhibit grew to cover a whole wall, then half of their office space and eventually took over. The institute ultimately had to move to new premises so the office could be properly converted into a gallery to promote African art. Jo Thorpe co-ordinated the fledgling centre, which under her guidance and expertise has grown to become one of the most significant centres for African art in the country.

The African Art Centre is a non-profit development project that aims to:

Promote the traditional artistic heritage of African people;

Encourage the transition from traditional to contemporary trends in a changing society;

Provide incentives for artists and craftspeople;

Assist individuals and self-help projects to provide an income for rural people, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal;

Help young artists / craftspeople by sponsoring training in creative skills and by holding exhibitions of their work.

At present the centres has almost 300 artists and a varying number of beadworkers and crafts people. It is bursting with original works at prices ranging from R3 to R3000. The centre is mostly known for its woven Zulu grain baskets, high-quality traditional beadwork, original wood sculptures and carvings, mobiles, wire bicycles, batiks, bangles and weaving from the Rorke's Drift area.

At present the African Arts Centre works towards doing five exhibitions a year to promote artists nationally and internationally. They are working on forming joint partnerships with national art galleries to promote black artists in art festivals and exhibitions nationally and internationally.

The African Art Centre is a tribute to Jo Thorpe who co-ordinated the centre from 1959 until 1991 when she retired. After retiring, she was their consultant until her death.

The KNSA Gallery whose main function is to promote the arts and to provide a space for artists. The KNSA Gallery was formed in 1905 as the Natal Society of Artists. Essentially a support group for artists and a means of helping them organise annual exhibitions, the KNSA has achieved considerable standing through various historical periods - from colonial to union to republic and now into the post apartheid era. The KNSA, a non-profit making organisation, has evolved significantly over the last 20 years. It has been at the forefront of informal arts education and outreach programmes and has run six permanent workshops for more than five years.

The KNSA is now housed in a specially commissioned gallery building in Bulwer Road, Glenwood. It has a gallery shop, main and secondary galleries and two workshops, as well as a tea garden that serves light lunches, cakes and refreshments.

The gallery does not have a permanent exhibition but hosts twenty or more temporary exhibitions every year. The three galleries, allow works by established artists to be displayed simultaneously with those of students and community-based artists.

The gallery’s main focus is on achieving a level of professionalism and high quality. It is hoped that exhibiting at the KNSA Gallery will be something artists can aspire to and not take for granted.

An important facet of the KNSA is the actual selling of art. Stakeholders believe that in striving for greater professionalism and higher standards, a buying public will be nurtured.

The BAT Centre - The Centre with ART-TITUDE, supports a vibrant art and cultural life! On the edge of the picturesque small craft harbour in Durban is the BAT Centre, Durban's most innovative community arts centre. This wonderful space goes by the unlikely name of the BAT Centre - short for the Bartel Arts Trust Centre, in memory of philanthropic Austrian-born entrepreneur Hugo Bartel, whose money was left in a trust fund for the arts.

It is a versatile venue catering for performers, visual artists and art-lovers. It includes a 350-seater hall suitable for performances and functions, a well equipped resource centre, a photographic centre and specially art-related shops. The studio space for resident artists allows visitors to interact with artists while they are working and gain an insight into their work. The dance studios reverberate constantly with dramatic activity as local groups rehearse forthcoming productions and again visitors are welcome to come in and watch.

The Menzi Mcunu Gallery is suspended above the bar at the BAT Centre and the displays are unusual and thought provoking. The Democratic Gallery specialises in exhibiting the work of previously marginalised artists and emerging local talent. These exhibitions allow discerning art lovers to view and buy the work of gifted artists.

Next door is Funky's who offer the best in Eastern fare and live entertainment including the top rock bands unplugged, and side-splitting comedy.

The BAT Centre is found in the Small Craft Harbour off the Victoria Embankment in central Durban. The entrance is via the yacht basin. The centre is open seven days a week, from 10am until 4pm. Restaurants and the hall are open until late.


"We're talking top jazz and rock acts, cabaret and comedy - you name it," says an excited owner, Lou Gottini, "Funky's is gonna hum." - As the name suggests, this is a funky restaurant and live-entertainment venue. It boasts a menu of predominantly eastern cuisine with tasty Durban curries and schwarmas. It has a comfortable stage much used and enjoyed by bands and comedy groups. Funky's has an impressive line-up of three or more different events in any one week. Practically the whole who's-who of Durban bands have appeared there.


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