Sculpting Stories amidst Environmental Disasters: Self-Perception after the 2022 Flood in Quarry Road West

The impact of disasters are carved into the environmental body and the physical bodies of individuals. This interplay of these bodies reveals itself in striking ways, with the very essence of our physical bodies reacting and adapting to the shifts of its surroundings. The perception of one’s bodily self undergoes vast alterations in response to these changes, as experienced across place and space during an environmental disaster. 

Take, for instance, the residents of Quarry Road West, an informal settlement nestled on the ever-shifting sands of the Palmiet River in Durban, South Africa. The unprecedented floods of 2022 brought about profound changes to people’s sense of self. Torrents of floodwater surged through the settlement, destroying shack living while reshaping the river’s course. The aftermath resembled a gaping wound at the settlement’s edge – marked by a substantial sinkhole that remains there today. The toll wasn’t limited to physical wounds; it extended to the social fabric of the community. The floods layered onto a recent history of overlapping catastrophes — COVID-19, large scale civil and political unrest in 2021, and recent settlement fires. These have all re-configured the social dynamics of the settlement, and have had  a deep influence on how people perceive themselves.

These re-configurations are just some of the social consequences of environmental disasters.  During my field work, I have conducted a series of workshops that are based on bodily injury and healing. The workshops aimed to understand how people made sense of their own life in the aftermath of the flood. The workshops included the act of sculpting stories of self, using abstract 3D modelling to assist participants to explain to others how they understood their own bodies.  

Within each workshop, participants were asked to sculpt and create themselves with playdough (Figure 1). Variations of bodies were made, with some participants focusing on the emotional injuries inflicted upon them while others used their image to explain how they navigated urban survival:

This is me; you can see me that I have different colors in my body to show injuries. Some are at the back, and it is not easy to identify. This doll represents myself and shows that you can only see me on the outside, but you will never see my inner spirit and even things which are in my heart you will not see it. Which means I have two lives the outer life which is easy for people to see and my inner life which is not easy to see. There is a life which public can see and a secret life which I know by myself (stories of self, artist).

Sculpting Stories
Figure 1:  Caption …

Others emphasised the current situation within QRW, which has forced each individual into a continuum of acts of resilience required to chase future hopes and dreams:

This doll, this made by me, its look like the skeleton and in our community, we are ignoring death as we have lost friends, relatives, parents because of the violence. We all are chasing our dreams to be fulfilled. By this doll I command dead spirit to come out from our community and conflicts. I would like to stop all kinds of death in our community (stories of self, artist).

Sculpting Stories

At the beginning of my fieldwork, I underestimated the capacity of the use of playdough to elucidate data in relation to the body. This medium not only allowed for the co-production of knowledge, by using art as a form of literacy to explain the lived experience of environmental disasters. It worked towards reducing some of the obvious power imbalances evident because I am a white woman researching in South Africa. These sculpted stories transformed my idea of the use of art to understand environmental disasters; the method allowed my participant to find their voices. It also captured my attention in new ways, allowing the unravelling of the social repercussions that human bodies are presently undergoing in response to challenges posed by climate change.

By Emily Ragus

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