Ancient art sparks Durban’s soul

ur_gypsumAn ancient, treasured art form used extensively across Morocco has found a home on the walls of a century old Church building near Durban’s City Hall.

Built in 1903, the old Aliwal Congregational Church in Samora Machel St fell into severe decay after it was sold by the church in face of dwindling congregation numbers to a private businessman in the late 1990s.

The building was recently bought by the South African National Zakah Fund (SANZAF) a leading faith-based, socio-welfare and educational organisation in Southern Africa. The old church is now being converted into a mosque complete with restoration of all its historical Christian elements, and a visitor’s area for people of other religions to observe Muslim prayers.

A family of artisans from Morocco are now at work in the building, applying the ancient form of gypsum plaster decoration – a specialised art form passed down from generation to generations. The craft involves the sketching of patterns onto a gypsum-based plaster – a compound that has been used for construction and decoration since 9000 BC. The craftsmen then carve out the patterns by hand resulting in unique and intricate decoration of walls, pillars and podiums.

Mohamed Houifed Kanar and his Moroccan team of craftsmen are at work in Durban’s old Aliwal Congregational Church applying an ancient form of gypsum plaster decoration dating back to 9000 BC.

Heritage specialist, Lindsay Napier, who leads the architectural team renovating the building, said the building’s restoration for religious purposes was one of the most inspiring and significant restoration projects she had worked on in.

“It’s exciting in that merges unique aesthetic and historic elements representing both the traditional Christian and Muslim faiths,” said Napier. She said the outside façade of the building would also remain true to its original form.

“Yes, this is a wonderful unifying process, representing a shift in culture and ideals from the early 1900s into the twenty first century,” said Yusuf Patel of Architects Collaborative whose firm is also involved in the restoration and other projects in the area.

Patel is convinced that restoration process, and introduction of associated educational arts and culture initiatives in the CBD will have a significant impact in revitalising the inner city in and around the City Hall.

“So many buildings around here had been taken over by brothel owners, slum-lords and dodgy businesses,” said Patel. “It is good to see organisations and the private sector re-investing in this space – the very heart of Durban city.”

At the nearby Regent Business School, head of research and innovation, Professor Dhiru Soni, welcomed the decision by Architects Collaborative to bring in Moroccan artists to help with the restoration of the church building.

“In Hindi and Gujarati they are called Karigars. These craftsmen have remained loyal to this ancient art. It is important they find a place in the modern world in order that history, form and art can be preserved for the future,” said Soni.

People who would like to see the craftsmen at work can call Haroon Karodia at 082 570 1989 to arrange a visit.

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