Bat’s big art supermarket

Durban’s fledgling centre for the arts is preparing to=20 fly, reports HUMPHREY TYLER

MAYBE they should hire lifeguards for the official=20 opening in a few weeks of the Bat Centre beside the=20 water in the harbour in Durban. Vusisizwe Mchunu=20 (mostly known as Vusi), the centre’s project manager=20 and a prize-winning poet, shook his head gravely this=20 week when he ran through the programme. His funny hat=20 wobbled. He concluded: “Yes man; it’s going to be a=20 party all right. It’s going to be a serious party.”

The Bat Centre is something quite new for Durban and is=20 probably unique in South Africa. Maybe the world? It=20 will be a cross between a multimedia arts supermarket=20 and an arts fun factory. In time it will have its own=20 arts radio station. Its aim is to get art going in=20 every conceivable form. Even putting up the building=20 for the centre has been a learning experience,=20 something quite new for some of the men on the job.

“Why are they knocking down that wall,” I asked. “They=20 just put it up, a few days ago.”

“Well, yes,” the man said. “They put in reinforcing=20 rods but somebody forgot the cement.” “Oh.”

“Never mind, we’ll get it up again in a few days.”

Selected guests have been shown around the place in the=20 past few days. There has even been a bums-on-seats=20 test. Some 40 people were rounded up to sit in tiers=20 around the huge concrete pit which is being transformed=20 into the Bat Theatre. The idea was to establish sight=20 lines. “At the back there, can you see?” shouted the=20 acting theatre manager. “Can you see over that tall=20 guy’s head? Can you hear?” Yes, they could.

The curiously named Bat Centre comes from the name of=20 the trust that finances it, the Bartel Arts Trust,=20 named after an eccentric Austrian called Hugo Bartel=20 who arrived in Durban (by car) from Tunisia and made a=20 fortune. A volubly volatile local architect persuaded=20 him to leave several millions to art. The architect is=20 Paul Mikula who is one of the trustees. He gesticulates=20 as he leads little groups around the unfinished=20 building. “This balcony is for coffee and drinks, look=20 at the marvellous view, the restaurant is around the=20 corner, but don’t go there it’s not finished.”

Some guests look anxious as they stumble through=20 rubble. Mikula himself is radiant. “The resource centre=20 is something quite new and this is the dance rehearsal=20

Nicky du Plessis, the centre’s general manager, is not=20 satisfied this space is big enough. A latter-day=20 Nijinsky might jump clean through the windows and on to=20 the Esplanade or through the archway into the recording=20

There is another hazard there. It is a very big hole in=20 the floor. Mikula explains they needed more height. “We=20 couldn’t go up so we went down, hey be careful, oops,=20 are you all right?”

Afterwards there is a boat trip around the bay, a novel=20 way to view the new arts centre, from the sea. “There=20 will be a huge mural all along the front, and lots of=20 little shops, and behind them sculptors’ workshops and=20 studios for artists. We will bring in foreign artists=20 to work here for various periods. Have some breyani,=20 it’s delicious. The mural on the front will change=20 every so often. Everything will be changing and growing=20 all the time. Have a beer.”

One major problem is to get co-operation from the=20 “authorities”. Mikula expects visitors to come not only=20 in private cars but in tourist buses. Something will be=20 going on at the centre day and night, so there needs to=20 be adequate parking and a level-crossing over the=20 railway line. This has not yet been provided.

Meanwhile, watching from the boat in the bay, you see=20 the centre beginning to rise impressively on the=20 dockside. To protect the deck of the catamaran that is=20 taking us out, everybody has to take off their shoes.=20 It is interesting how friendly even important people=20 look in their socks.=20

The Friends of Bat Association will be launched at the=20 centre on Saturday June 24 at 10am (phone 32-0451 for=20 details). The official opening of the centre is on=20 Saturday August 12

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