/ 17 February 2013

ConCourt art shapes South African stories

The ConCourt had hard words for the City of Tshwane
The ConCourt had hard words for the City of Tshwane

Stacey Vorster rubs the head of Anton Van Wouw's The Accused, which is mounted near the entrance of the Constitutional Court in Braamfontein.

It is a small bronze of a black man wearing a shirt with the sleeves cut off and a slightly frayed collar, his shoulders pushed back, his head held high and his chin up.

"It is about a man who was tried in a language he didn't understand, and sentenced to death," explains Vorster.

"In our court system now, you can be tried in any of our official languages," she says, her hand gently resting on sculpture.

"When people walk past him they give him a little rub. I like that," says Vorster.

She is the curator of the court's collection of over 400 works of art and shares anecdotes about every piece she walks past, believing they tell stories about South Africa in a way that books cannot.

They are situated in the court building and around Constitution Hill, which began as a prison complex and military fort in 1892, and has also housed a woman's jail and an apartheid-era prison.

For the first-time visitor, the building is a breath of fresh air compared to most courts, which usually feature little more than portraits of government officials and blobs of bubblegum under benches.

Justice for all

"Our whole issue is around access to justice. Our own court room is supposed to welcome people, not intimidate people," Justice Johan van der Westhuizen says in a telephone interview.

Van der Westhuizen chairs the court's art committee, which includes justices Edwin Cameron and Sisi Khampepe and outside consultants.

In November, they had to give back a series of Gerard Sekoto paintings and drawings, including Homme Fumant une cigarette" and African woman with turban, which had lined a public passage.

The Sekotos had been on loan since 2004, when Marilyn Martin was director of the Iziko SA National Gallery in Cape Town, but last year the gallery had requested they be returned.

Vorster said there was uncertainty about the terms of the loan, which was arranged by retired judge Albie Sachs and Martin, but they had been sent back to avoid hard feelings.

She is hoping something similar would be offered to the collection to make up for the loss.

A collection of Dumile Feni drawings, many given to Sachs, who then donated them, had been moved to where the Sekotos were.

"We were all sad that they had to go," said Van der Westhuizen, who named Sekoto's blue smoking man as among his personal favourites.

They have also had to return a Noria Mabasa sculpture on loan from its owner, who planned to auction it.

Visitors, either on court business, or on one of the many free tours, can still see a growing collection which was started by Sachs and his colleague Yvonne Mokgoro.

They were put in charge of the court's decor, with a budget of R10 000, when it was still in an office park in Braamfontein and, "instead of spending it on scatter cushions, they spent it on Humanity", said Vorster.

Humanity is a massive Joseph Ndlovu tapestry showing a group of people huddled together.

Everything else was either donated or loaned, or commissioned for integration into the design by architects Janina Masojada, Andrew Makin and Paul Wygers, such as the carvings on the doors.

The dark history of the site itself, is leavened with, for example, an enlargement of a giant bronze Moving into Dance by Orlando de Almeida — a favourite picture-posing site for visitors.

Part of the court

A giant Timothy Mlambo mobile of brightly coloured birds and geckoes in a meeting room, and two long, glass-covered coffee tables with Zulu beadwork donated by artist Barbara Tyrell, show how the pieces have become part of everyday life of the court.

Playfully patterned carpets with the weavers' names woven into their corners and bronze stair nosings cast from clay designs by potter Ntombi Nala are set into steps that lead downhill past a massive brightly coloured Norman Catherine sculpture, and an Andrew Verster installation.

Sue Williamson's portraits of women in South Africa's history — such as a young Mamphela Ramphele — hang on a wall outside the judges' chambers, and a small collection of Marc Chagall prints are part of the collection.

Not all of the works are easy on the soul.

One of the main works is the Blue Dress, or The man who sang and the woman who kept silent, a poignant work by Judith Mason which remembers Phila Ndwande, a woman buried in a shallow grave after being shot during apartheid and Herold Sefola, who asked permission to sing Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrica before he was shot.

Mason painted the triptych after listening to testimony during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

According to Van der Westhuizen, much of the work curated by Sachs referred to the apartheid period, but this was not the deciding factor when the committee determined whether to accept an artwork.

"We quite strongly feel that we don't want to narrow it down to a concrete term that it must be a certain theme, but it must be of significance to our constitutional democracy," he said.

"There are many issues in society: over the last few days, [for example] violence against women. Artists may grapple with them in various ways, it goes to human dignity, equality," he said.

He jokes that they would not just say no to "a nice painting of flowers".

One of their latest donations is a work by Rose Shakinovsky entitled Every Three Minutes, a chilling piece which shows a collection of tiny dolls' shoes arranged on a board.

The treasures are not anybody's to sell, says Van der Westhuizen.

They don't belong to the government or to the court, nor are they funded or maintained by taxpayers' money.

They belong to the Constitutional Court Trust, which is managed by an attorney. – Sapa