Legends of the Casbah

Palais de la Culture Amadou Hampâté Bâ, Bamako, Mali
30 Nov 2019 - 31 Jan 2020

From the film archive: a still photo from 16ʹ footage film of Aces United Football Club at Curries Fountain stadium, c. 1950s.

From the film archive: a still photo from 16ʹ footage film of Aces United Football Club at Curries Fountain stadium, c. 1950s.

Legends of the Casbah presents an alternate history of the South African Indian that explodes the colonial and apartheid state’s stereotypes of the community, who arrived as indentured laborers in the port city of Durban in 1860 soon after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833.

This exhibition arises from the recent documentary film Riason Naidoo co-produced and co-directed, with Damon Heatlie, titled Legends of the Casbah (2016), that makes extensive use of photographs from the 1950s and ‘60s that draw on various libraries and collections in South Africa: provincial and national archives, the Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre, Drum magazine, photographer Ranjith Kally and numerous private family photo albums.

The documentary itself was inspired by a photographic exhibition that Riason Naidoo curated entitled The Indian in Drum magazine in the 1950s (2006) from un-catalogued negatives in the Drum archives in Johannesburg. This later resulted in a book (2008) Naidoo authored by the same name. The Drum project itself was preceded by a focus on retrospective exhibitions on photographer Ranjith Kally, who worked for Drum and its sister newspaper Gold City Post for 26 years, which traveled to five countries.

While doing photo research for the documentary film, Naidoo was looking for additional photographic evidence to illustrate important figures that emerged in the telling of the broader narrative of an alternate Indian history and identity in South Africa, one that could contest the official propaganda version. This process of looking for photographs to show evidence of a past experience revealed for me the reliance on the photo as uncontested proof of an experience. The sense of despair in the lost photo is echoed by bell hooks:

“I remember giving her the snapshot for safekeeping; only, when it was time for me to return home it could not be found. This was for me a terrible loss, an irreconcilable grief. Gone was the image of myself I could love. Losing that snapshot, I lost the proof of my worthiness…”1

As Naidoo started to trace the characters, many of whom had since passed on, he met their families and in the process uncovered some fascinating personal material from the 1950s and 1960s in their family photo albums; a visual equivalent of an oral history. The photos, intimate and unpretentious, were taken in the main by family members—untrained amateur photographers—but also include formal studio photographs, typical of the time.

The family photo albums richly elaborate on the narratives on some of the key figures already prominently featured in Drum magazine. Personalities such as anti-apartheid political activists, doctors Monty Naicker, Yusuf Dadoo and Kesaveloo Goonam Naidoo, the latter who was also a feminist activist campaigning for womens’ rights to contraception and abortion in the 1960s. It sheds light on gangs such as the Crimson League and the Salots and tough guys like Sheriff Khan and Pataan. Musicians such as couple Miriam Makeba and Sonny Pillay and “socialite” Pumpy Naidoo – owner of the legendary Goodwill Lounge jazz club—reveal the cosmopolitan jazz life of the 1950s decade in Durban. Teenage girl phenomenon motorcycle stuntier-rider Amaranee Naidoo defies all odds by riding the “Wall of Death” on her Harley Davidson. Caddy Papwa Sewgolum—an amateur golfer living in slum conditions, who went on to defeat Gary Player at the 1965 Natal Open, when Player was the world’s top earner in the game—earned international attention for winning the Dutch Open on three occasions.

Emerging are street fighters such as Mac Naidoo, boxers Seaman Chetty, Louis Joshua, Mckensie and trainer Benny Singh. Feminist activists and intellectuals such as lawyer Phyllis Naidoo, sociologists Professor Fatima Meer and the younger Devi Rajab feature too. Star footballers like Dharam Mohan and football clubs such as Aces United and Avalon Athletic reveal the popularity of the sport played at Curries Fountain, then a football mecca.

“Look here it is!”2 I could imagine myself saying, recalling Roland Barthes’ assertion of the photograph as possessing an evidential force, and sug- gesting “the gesture of the child pointing his finger at something and saying: that, there it is, lo!”

The “legends” offer up alternate rich and complex narratives and identities. The intriguing characters that emerge in the family photo albums rose above the racial constraints imposed on them and their stories are testament to the histories of a broader community. In this way the project’s purpose become clear—it presents an alternate history that explodes the apartheid state’s stereotypes of the South African “Indian.”

bell hooks believes that photography can help us to reconstitute images of ourselves so that we imagine ourselves in new and liberating ways that may “transcend the limits of the colonizing eye.”3 Naidoo believes that these photos, selected from family photo albums, will help us do just that.




1 hooks, bell (1994) “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life” in The Photography Reader (2003) edited by Liz Wells. Routledge, London and New York: 387-394.

2 Barthes, Roland (1981: p5) Camera Lucida (translated by Richard Howard). The Noonday Press, New York.

3 hooks, bell (1994) “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life” in The Photography Reader (2003) edited by Liz Wells. Routledge, London and New York: 387-394.


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