Bringing the Ocean to Joburg: The Holding Water Project at POOL

The ocean is the medium which has facilitated globalisation and cultural exchange, but also colonialism and imperialism.   As environmental degradation and global warming continue to damage the oceans, understanding their impacts on human society becomes an urgent matter of survival. Landlocked Johannesburg is far from any ocean.  And yet, the tides and flows of the high seas still exerts its undeniable influence on a dry metropolis, a hidden power like the roaring sound of waves trapped in a sea-shell. Understanding this invisible, yet all pervasive, oceanic pull, is the current shared focus of The Oceanic Humanities for the Global South at Wits University and Johannesburg arts organisation POOL.

As one of their press statements puts it

Johannesburg is a landlocked city, the largest city in the world not located on a major body of water. But this dry city is oddly oceanic. With half of the cargo received by the ports at Durban and Cape Town landing at the container terminal in Johannesburg, it is known as the largest dry port in the world. Its geological history is as a prehistoric ocean floor, and its urban fabric runs along a continental watershed, with rainwater running from its side to distant coasts. Johannesburg may also, in the future, become waterlogged again, as a dry island amid rising seas or sunk into acid mine water. From the ruined Three Ships restaurant at the Carlton Hotel to the South African Institute for Maritime Research (a shadowy apartheid-era paramilitary force), the old SAS navy base in Wemmer Pan and the model of the Dromedaris in Santarama Miniland – Johannesburg is littered with oceanic allusions.

This collaborative project explores our cultural and aesthetic understanding of water, with a particular focus on how power structures in the global South are produced through its political, social and economic relationship to the ocean.  Through a series of lectures, reading groups, installations, colloquiums and artist led city walks, by Bianca Baldi, Nolan Oswald Dennis and Zayaan Khan amongst others,  the project asks nothing less than the question “how can we decolonise our understanding of oceanic space and its role in sustaining and producing human culture?”

The current iteration of this Holding Water project is a reading series organised by local artists Sinethemba Twalo and Abri de Swardt,  ‘To See With The Ears and Speak With The Nose’.  Aligned to coincide with cycles of the moon, the reading series looks at the transitory state of water. It explores water as a chaos of fluidity and dissolution. This mercurial substance stands outside of human conceptions of time and space, offering a primal contrast to the rigid orders of colonialism and capitalism. Re-framing our social relationship to water is a key contemporary challenge. By raising these questions in the Joburg context, the Holding Water project is pointing to a new and exciting sense of the oceanic in culture.

Residence Time, the next gathering of ‘To See With The Ears and Speak With The Nose’, will occur on 4 December 18:30 for 19:00.  Meet at POOL, Ellis House, 23 Voorhout St, New Doornfontein

For more information, and to sign-up to the reading cycle, please contact

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