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Art, Culture

Life and Death Between Chai

by Samora Chapman / 11.07.2012

It’s Thursday night at the Life and Death Between Chai photographic exhibition in downtown Durban… two strangers stand and stare at an image of a deformed man praying to Lord Ganesha. The image is suspended from a high ceiling, lit by a bare 40 watt light bulb. “When I see shit like this,” ponders the guy, “it just confirms to me that there is no God.”

The girl frowns and turns slightly to sneak a glance at the commentator. She mulls over his statement, which has made her very psyche cringe. After a long pause she says: “That’s weird, because for me this image confirms the very fact that there is a God. Do you know what the Hindu God Ganesha symbolises?”
“No I don’t,” the guy mumbles… taken back by her confrontational tone.
“He stands for the transcending of obstacles,” she continues. “This guy is totally deformed to the point that he actually looks like an elephant. Yet he still has faith. He’s praying to Ganesha because he knows that life is a blessing no matter what. I think it’s a beautiful image.”

This conversation captures the essence of the Life and Death exhibition more poignantly than I could ever explain. I believe that every day we wake up and choose to experience benevolent life, or immanent damnation. As Tolstoy (referencing JC) says, “the kingdom of God is within.” But we’re here for art reviews, not ethical debates right?

To cut to the chase, Life and Death between Chai was staged by Durban photographers Kevin Goss-Ross, Caitlin Smith and Gareth Bright, and marked something truly momentous for the Durban art scene. Inspired, curated and funded by the artists themselves, the event showed that young Durban creatives are as good as any in the world, and the community poured in to show their support. It’s almost sad that the city isn’t big enough to contain the talent that is produced here, but exhibitions like this ensure that the scene grows irrepressibly.

I love the fact that we all see the same world in vastly different ways. And artists are able to interpret and recreate reality until the art exists almost independently of the source of creation. On one hand this collection of images, all taken in India, communicate a transcendental sense of hope despite unimaginable suffering. On the other hand it lays bare the brutal reality of a wildly overpopulated and impoverished nation.

The atmosphere was perfectly conjured… with live music humming from the Hare Krishnas, colourful shawls forming avenues to wonder through and free bunny chows to warm hungry bellies. It was like being transported to a market place in the depths of Delhi, or a bustling street in the gullies of Mumbai.

And the images hung like apparitions. Glimpses of the magical beauty of one of the poorest places in the world. Streets that look like eternal carnivals. Beggars, holy cows and ragged hounds all existing in messy matrimony. I have travelled to many places, and never have I come across people as joyful, humble and benevolent as I did in India. But don’t be fooled. India is also a vampire that eats its young. Where atrocities beyond your sweatiest nightmares can grip you and suck you under. And I feel this exhibition communicated the contradictions of the country to perfection.

Kevin Goss-Ross’ images are mind bending. This body of work is, in my opinion, nothing short of genius and worthy of a book in itself. His composition and handling of light and colour is masterful… although his trademark lighting technique can make a lot of the images look similar. I guess it’s more of a definitive style than anything. I loved some of his more spontaneous images, using only ambient light, which is a rarity from him. But his incredible talent and technical ability enables him to take photos in just about any situation that look like they were composed by some kind of divine inspiration.

I’ve never seen Caitlin’s work, but she truly has a brilliant eye for catching moments. Her images have that sudden, fleeting beauty. Like a snapshot of an instant that can be seen for a split second and then disappears forever. A girl running down an ally. A face hidden by a shawl. Transient figures drifting across a checkered floor. Her ability to capture movement and her timing with the shutter draws parallels to legends like Henri Cartier-Bresson.

My initial perception of Gareth’s photos was that they were somewhat outshone by the other big and brilliant colour prints. His work was all black and white, 35mm film… and at first seemed more ordinary than the other work. I was also put off by the wildstyle scrawls (transcribed from his diary kept whilst travelling India) detracted from the images rather then adding anything to the aesthetic value.

But after the exhibition… beyond the shiny party lights and the buzz of sweet beer, I had another look at his pics and it hit me. They offered the perfect counter weight wait to Kevin and Caitlin’s work. Where Kevin’s images tend to paint any situation with an almost plastic beauty and Caitlin’s images are ethereal and dreamlike; Gareth’s work is brutal and honest and real. The skeletons and the killer stares. The shit and death and the chaos. Like Caitlin, he has a great ability to shoot unobtrusively. To be an artist and observer without staging his presence or manipulating the scene. His pics were less glamorous and offered the perfect juxtaposition to somewhat debunk the purely romantic visions of mystical India.

*Life and Death Between Chai is currently exhibiting at The Factory Cafe, 369 Magwaza Maphalala (Gale Street), Durban.

*Coming soon an interview with Kevin Goss-Ross.

*Images © Samora Chapman

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