An abandoned house in Umbilo has withstood what seems like decades of neglect, generating ghost tales and raising the ire of neighbours who were vexed about its derelict state in the process. But, it is the scene of a curious story and an unlikely transformation.
It looks like any other forsaken house; the walls are caving in and trees hang over the derelict structure. Factories and businesses occupy surrounding buildings during the day and a small kiosk operates in front where a vendor sells fruit, snacks and cigarettes to commuters and residents.
But when night falls, a different world unfolds. The road on which this house is situated becomes deathly quiet; the house seems haunted.
Eyes peer out from the dark towards the eerily quiet street. One can only imagine the wicked tales (some urban legend) this dilapidated structure must hold.
A few years ago a community newspaper was up in arms over the ‘eyesore’ the house had become. Two days before it was about to be destroyed something drastic happened and what was previously spoken of by children in the neighborhood as the ‘spook’ house was transformed into the Green Camp Gallery Project.
An iron gate covered in graffiti is the entrance to the urban camp. I walk through the tiny entrance and find myself momentarily lost in a labyrinth of art installations and paintings. It is a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle outside. It’s like some kind of retro, futuristic, Mad Max inspired urban monastery. Rubble, bricks and various forgotten objects have been recycled to create a floating gallery space that is constantly evolving.
Once past the labyrinth of strange art instillations you’ll find a cool, calm and collected Xolani Hlongwa who sits under an uneven steel shelter and greats me jovially. To my right a group of eager artists is clearing debris and getting ready for an exhibition. I see a tent not far from where Xolani is sitting and at a glance it would appear that he is some kind of nouveau squatter or shantytown prophet, inspired to uplift this little piece of Umbilo.
“Roughly three years ago I was looking for the right location for this project. I found a property in Florida Road, but they didn’t want to give it to me. Something just told me to walk down Davenport Road, so I started walking and eventually got onto Umbilo and found this space. It was two days before they were about to demolish it and I managed to secure an agreement to rent the space from the landlords, a chuffed Hlongwa says.
For the past two years this reserved urban monk has invited various creative minds in Durban to help him with his vision. He wants to eventually have a space where art and nature can flourish side by side in a postmodern urban environment. He opens the space up to all sorts of ideas and initiatives and hopes that one day Green Camp Gallery will be a haven for the creative industry in Durban.
“Green Camp gallery project is an organic urban lifestyle and design hub. We have a 10-year plan, after we have perfected it, it will be able to be used by other communities as a model. Even government or social institutions can adopt it. The area is already functioning as an art gallery, organic vegetable garden and apparel shop with live installations of urbanity. Live music has been hosted as well as poetry readings and backyard cinema screenings. We’ll be opening an organic kitchen soon with a juice bar. We also have tents and want to have backpacking facilities or couch surfing.”
This all seems too much like a fairytale ending. One cannot deny the dangers of crime and violence in urban areas such as these. Hlongwa has no starry-eyed notions of the Green Camp Gallery being completely safe after hours. He has engaged with the community and the word has spread quickly. He has had no crimes on site thus far. During the day or when an exhibition or live event is hosted the space is open to the public.
“This area is quite central but it’s neglected and it’s infamous for crime. We want to raise awareness. There is so much desperation here and when I got back from my travels I found many spaces in the city were shut down. Let’s look at our neglected spaces with a different view. We keep complaining about the government, DA this and ANC that,but what we are looking for is right in front of us. Green Camp Gallery project has no funding from the government; we rely on donations and need to learn to do it on our own. I found a guy leaving his belongings here just as we were starting the initiative and instead of chasing him away I got him involved. He recycles metal for a living. He’s my friend and a part of the family. Traveling empowers you and gives you an international language; people who haven’t travelled don’t understand this language.”
The 39 year old self-taught researcher and ‘academic’ says he has travelled and lived in 16 different countries including Slovakia, Estonia, Finland, Switzerland, France, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. “I was encouraged and impressed by the Scandinavian social system. It’s a capitalist system but has social blueprints; it helped me to develop the plans for this project.”
A few months ago, Green Camp Gallery Project, faced closure due to overdue rent. Xolani quickly mobalised the art community of Durban and many concerned patrons and practitioners of creativity jumped on board last minute to make sure the rental was paid. “It was a great feeling to know that the art industry might be small in this city, but there is support and solidarity and we proved that to raise the money for the rental of the space in just a few weeks before we faced closure.”
Hlongwa admits that a lot of help and capital is still needed before the space can really fly, and another fundraiser is being planned for the end of November as he and various creatives involved are looking to expand.
“There is a lot of rubble that needs to be moved but it’s expensive to rent the trucks, so we are planning another fundraiser for end of November, we also have a plan to build two stage areas, and we want to put proper toilets in place, we are also expanding our vegetable garden and as we slowly get the funds for more facilities such as art studios, a fully functional kitchen. We are also open to any suggestions and want to be a space which help local entrepreneurs, artists, fashion designers and creatives achieve their goals in an organic and holistic nature.”
Various events have taken place at Green Camp over the past two years including film screenings, art exhibitions, poetry readings and concerts including the Earthdance pre party and a permaculture festival where the community was invited to participate in learning about more sustainable lifestyles.
For more information on Green Camp Gallery and when they will be hosting events and community initiatives email: