You have just 10 more days to see this exhibition at Gallery MOMO. It’s definitely worth making time for … Beira’s Grande Hotel sits like a beached battleship, its mottled and worn concrete façade revealing the building’s age and its abandonment by its former owners. With his photographs Mark Lewis tells many stories – of grand ambition to design a space for holidaymakers of colonial-era Mozambique, and of a local community that has survived war and conflict to occupy the shell of some property developer’s dreams. The images, now being exhibited at Johannesburg’s Gallery MOMO, whisper of the building’s life as it once was, and as it might have been while they portray the daily existence of more than 3000 people who call the Grande Hotel a home.
Lewis says: “I have always been interested in abandoned and reoccupied spaces and this one fitted that bill totally in terms of its history.”
The spectacular modernist building opened as a hotel in 1954 in what was then an important African port city. According to Lewis the hotel was billed as the “Pride of Africa”, “and widely regarded as the largest and most exquisite hotel on the continent.” However its profitability never matched its ambitions and it closed in 1963, with Mozambique’s plunge into a protracted war snuffing out any hopes for a reopening. At different points in its history, the hotel’s basement housed the new Frelimo government’s captives following the War of Independence, its walls sheltered government troops during the civil war and then a stream of refugees replaced the former occupants, making the Grande Hotel their permanent refuge.
Lewis first saw an image of the building about nine years ago. In June last year he spent eight days photographing this grand edifice and the daily life contained within it. “Given all of that [history] there are people who have lived there their whole lives. There’s a community there even though there is no sanitation or electricity.”
The hotel exists in darkness, its windows boarded up against the light and prime-property views of the ocean. “The first night we were there at about 8.30pm. We had taken a 17-hour bus ride from Maputo and when we arrived there wasn’t a single light, not even candlelight. All these people living here…”
The stark contrast challenged the photographer. “There was either blinding light pouring through gaps in the structure or blackness, absolutely impenetrable… nothing in between. I didn’t really expect how dark it was going to be.”
The families who live there occupy the former hotel rooms and the basement, their lives confined into small spaces. “It’s quite difficult to make yourself a little spot in the vast triple volume spaces so those have been left empty. I walked through the hotel for eight days from sunrise to sunset and there was never a sense of 3000 people living there”.
The photographs depict singular lives against the charcoal blackened and scarred concrete – a man who lives on the first floor in a former toilet cubicle, a woman who has set up her spaza shop in a corridor and another who smilingly poses for the camera perched upon a grime-eroded bannister, the chequered cloth of her skirt and blouse making geometric references to the railings. The bright colours of their clothing pop out incongruously against the concrete backgrounds while a young woman in a Hannah Montana T-shirt presents the complex irony of modern forms of colonialism.
Lewis talks of Beira as a place of little opportunity. “It seems stuck in the 50s. While Maputo booms it hasn’t really moved on.” At the hotel, he says: “Some people have jobs and most people don’t. I photographed this one boy who is 23. He was born in the hotel. He has finished school. He has never worked in his life and the chances of a job are minute.”
By contrast there are a lot of other residents who create work, young girls who carry water [which has to be bought outside the hotel for five Meticais per five litres] for those who are unable to, fisherman who empty their catch to sell onto the once-Parquet floors and women who make food to sell. He describes seeing a man who lived off making charcoal, working through the night, night after night, to chop wood dragging huge trees trunks in a trolley to a huge pit for burning that he had dug nearby.
Within this Lewis finds a troubling beauty. Formerly a fashion and advertising photographer he lived in London during the 1980s working for cutting edge magazines such as The Face and Blitz. He returned to South Africa in 1994 working on assignments with a foreign correspondent that have taken him across the continent. The exhibition invitation bears the image of a young woman, a plastic bucket carried on her head descending the sweeping staircase.
He says: “There’s a whole lot of things going on for me in that moment… the elegance of this woman just in her posture on this rather extraordinary staircase and the thought of a dumpy holidaygoer previously who would have been using this same staircase… Here’s this woman just carrying out her daily routine… I can’t ignore it because my first reaction is wow! That is a beautiful scene even though it’s filled with irony and all sorts of things that are not particularly pleasant.”
To get the images he had to negotiate with the committee in charge, contributing some money to the hotel’s running expenses. While it gave him access to the building he was acutely aware of boundaries between him and his subjects. “One tries to come home with a little bit of that experience and realize what one has. It’s very humbling – the way that people allow you to come into their lives… I constantly find it extraordinary and it’s a privilege that through the camera you are sort of given this look at other peoples lives that I wouldn’t have without it … but all these contradictions, they’re constant.”
Through a friend, his Mozambican intermediary and interpreter, Lewis sent copies of the photographs back to the hotel. He hasn’t been back to get the response. Digital photography has changed the relationship to the subject as the image taken is visible, removing an aspect of the camera’s voyeuristic eye. Still Lewis feels it is a complicated relationship.
He goes back to the photograph of the young woman in the chequered clothing. “She posed for the picture for me – there’s a richness to it. She’s not constantly thinking about how terrible her life is. She’s living and one can’t ignore that – that people are having a life there and it’s not a winnable situation. But for me when I meet her, speak to her and photograph her something happens and it enriches my life. I don’t know what it does to her life.” I walk away thinking it’s a different form of African pride, one that the long gone hotel owners probably could never imagine.
* The Grande Hotel, Beira is on until June 17 at Gallery MOMO, 52 7th Avenue Parktown North. Gallerymomo.com This piece was originally published in the Mail&Guardian.