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Saturday, January 10, 2015


(A Vista Imagined iPhoco – the Love Letter Mixed Media)

Running in the Durban Art Gallery’s Circular Gallery until January 27 is an exhibition of work by Durban artist Jean Powell showing selected examples of her fabric works, traditional graphic works, botanic studies, calligraphy, and her collaborations with architects in vitreous enamel and etched glass. The exhibition is curated by Robert Brusse.

Jean Powell, now in her mid-80s, is an artist remembered as an active committee member of the KwaZulu-Natal Society of Arts, the Friends of the Durban Art Gallery and other bodies, but is less well known for her own artistic production. She is probably best known for her enamel works, both private and public. Several of the works that she has on exhibition have a strong empathy towards women and their perceived problems in a male-dominated world.

She has discovered, taught and helped countless young people to develop skills and talents, but few people know the breadth of her work, nor her journey through life.

Jean trained in Britain, working in Kenya before coming to South Africa. She is one of the few art teachers alive who taught on Salisbury Island in Durban. She went on to teach textile design at the University of Durban Westville, before moving to the Natal Technical College. She was one of a group of dedicated artists who developed the talents of various communities under trying circumstances.

Powell was born in Kenya, on February 11, 1927. Her parents had emigrated from the UK where her mother had studied, and graduated as a doctor from the University of Edinburgh. Jean’s mother is famous for driving around on a motor bike with a side car, almost always wearing a tartan skirt!

Immediately after matriculating, her mother decided that she should gain further design experience and had her booked into the then Natal Technical College in Durban. After 18 months, she moved to the UK and trained at the Bartlett School of Architecture and later the Central School of Art and Craft where she followed a design curriculum and was taught drawing by a young Lucian Freud!

After her studies were completed, she worked in the fabric design studio in London. From London she returned to Kenya where initially she worked in a woman architect's office, before moving on to teach art at one of the more prestigious schools in Nairobi.

In time, they decided to return to South Africa, where they settled in Durban. Soon after the Powell family returned to South Africa, she got an appointment to the Salisbury Island College, teaching students in the Fine Arts Department. When, two or three years later the University of Durban Westville opened - and Salisbury Island was closed - she started the Fabric Design course at UDW.

“These were heady days in the creative world of Natal. The fine art studios at Natal University, Durban Westville and the then Natal Technical College had a galaxy of artist luminaries and this lead to a flourishing period for the visual arts in all forms,” recalls curator Robert Brusse.

Powell worked with a number of architects - some for private homes, some for public buildings. She did a large number of wall panels, starting off reinterpreting industrial designs and later introducing botanic motifs. She is arguably one of the few enamel artists who experimented with the incorporation of fabric or who investigated the possibility of doing a series of three enamels, as one would in a graphic work on paper.

The Jean Powell Retrospective exhibition runs at the Durban Art Gallery until January 27.

There will be a walkabout with curator Robert Brusse on January 17 from 14h00 to 15h30 in the Circular Gallery at the Durban Art Gallery which is open seven days a week: Monday until Saturday from 08h30 until 16h00 and Sunday from 11h00 until 16h00.  Entry is free and all are welcome!

For more information on the gallery, contact 031 311 2264 / 9 or email (weekdays). DAG is on the second floor of the magnificent Durban City Hall, enter opposite the Playhouse.