By Charlotte Johnson

I work in public art. I take public art personally. I also believe in its relevance and importance in shaping our cities. And so, I cannot muffle the offence that Perceived Freedom has caused me. And many others, for a number of different reasons.

Firstly, public art costs money. A fair amount of money. Not World Bank/Nkandla/Wall Street kind of money. Let’s be real, it’s art. But definitely the equivalent of a good few RDP houses. Even more toilets. Public art is often funded by the city. As in the case of Johannesburg where a bill is in place allocating 1% of the built environment budget to public art. Making up a percentage of that money budgeted for built environment, is you, the taxpayer. And so, when facilitating the production of art in public space by means of the city, one, we, have a responsibility to those who inhabit the city and pay its taxes.

Budget allocation does not work quite the same way in Cape Town. Nevertheless, it pains me to see how the Sea Point promenade has become somewhat of a dumping ground for the most inane visual assaults parading as public art. Certain works being entirely devoid of context and striving only for the very meaningful intention of “playfulness”. A theme that Cape Town so often strives for. There is nothing wrong with playfulness. To be sure, we could all benefit from playfulness. But I do think, that if you are taking the responsibility of putting a statement into as public a place as the Sea Point promenade then perhaps you should feel just a small press of the weight of all that we deal with in this country.

How is it that we can continue to spew meaningless images and symbols into public space, when each of these are a missed opportunity at analysing the context, the space the country that we live in and producing something meaningful towards a scenario that is truly post-apartheid and not masquerading as such. Those who hold power, even if only through statements placed in public space, should create clear, effective and relevant messages. Come on Cape Town, is it really still okay to live in a synthetic moment of “post-apartheid” styled by the DA and maintained by the alabaster white sentinels. To be clear, I find Michael Elion’s sculpture a gross misuse of both power and money, and a missed opportunity at a meaningful action.

A further missed opportunity lies in the half-baked tribute to Nelson Mandela in the form of crass commercial crap. For one, when putting imagery or signifiers of the struggle in public space, it is quite a travesty to link Mandela to (sun) glasses, when this is a symbol synonymous with his predecessor as president of the ANC, Oliver Reginald Tambo. You might know the guy. You might not. There’s an airport named after him. You can do an online search on him. And so, this begs the question, which barrel did Elion find to scrape for the link between Mandela and Ray-Ban glasses. Moreover, in a meeting last year with Dali Tambo, going over proposals for a public art piece in Johannesburg honouring Tambo’s legacy, one proposal similarly suggested an oversized pair of glasses (yet another indication of the unoriginality of this work). Tambo noted that to him, reducing his father and a man who did so much to liberate this country, to an object was distasteful, offensive and plain unoriginal.

It also worries me, that in honouring our heroes, we are unable to think beyond Mandela. Behind, next to and in front of this man, was a sea of other crusaders. Yet we see only Tata. Worse, we oftentimes know only Tata. What does this say of how we apprehend the history of the struggle. A struggle which in effect still continues. How can we allow countless fighters, heroes to just fade into obscurity. This was a missed opportunity. A missed opportunity to educate. A missed opportunity to revive a legacy and to make people think. And I am sure, yet another slap in the face to not only the Tambo family, but all the other families that sacrificed a loved one to the struggle. Let’s honour the father of our nation, of course, but let’s create that space to honour others too. And in so doing leaving a tangible chronology for generations to come of how we got here.

It is just no longer okay that in the desperate and dire situation that South Africa finds itself in, brands with cash and dudes with a welding machine (and cash from brands) can play liberal-liberal in this unadulterated statement of white wealth, power, disconnectedness and unconsciousness. Oh and Cape Town summer fun in the sun just on the horizon.

We need to become more deliberate, more aware with our actions. We need to make them count and start to take responsibility.

Here’s a suggestion, Ray-Ban, why not take that money that it cost you to deface the memory of Mandela, slap the Tambos in the face and deface the promenade and hand the equivalent in sunglasses out in Khayelitsha to protect its residents’ eyeballs against the faecal-infused dust that blows up off their roads that remain untarred.

Ray-Ban, you didn’t make nice man. Michael Elion, neither did you. Shame on both of you.

Charlotte Johnson works for a public arts company in Johannesburg.


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On our Reader Blog, we invite Thought Leader readers to submit one-off contributions to share their opinions on politics, news, sport, business, technology, the arts or any other field of interest. If...

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