Art collecting with Albie Sachs

In 1945, seven years before former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs joined the liberation struggle in apartheid South Africa, his appreciation for art had already bloomed. Paintings by his mother's artist friend adorned the walls of his childhood home.

Around the same time in his life, his trade unionist father sowed the idea of fighting for freedom in Sachs's mind. In an interview with the Mail & Guardian in 2010, Sachs recalled how his father sent him a postcard during World War II that read: "Dear Albert, congratulations on your sixth birthday. May you grow up to be a soldier in the fight for liberation."

You could say his relationship with politics and art are bound by lineage and love.

Sachs began his career fighting against South Africa's oppressive laws at the age of 17, when he took part in the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign. At 21, he was already an advocate at the Cape Bar. Despite the rising political turmoil in the country at the time, which saw him being targeted by the Security Branch and placed in solitary confinement, Sachs's interest in art did not wane. He went into exile in 1966: first to England for just over a decade, where he studied and taught law, and later to Mozambique.

While in exile, he took an active interest in the arts. Sachs acquired some of his most prized artworks outside of South Africa and also made friends with legendary artists such as Dumile Feni.

Albie Sachs alongside a Walter Oltmann creation.

As the armed struggle engulfed South Africa, many freedom fighters left the country. But the apartheid regime cracked down on dissenters, regardless of their location. In Maputo, in 1988, a bomb that was placed in Sachs's car exploded – resulting in the loss of his right arm and the sight in his right eye. This event did not deter Sachs from continuing his active role in the fight for democracy in his home country and he continued to work closely with leaders of the ANC to help to draft the party's statutes and code of conduct.

On his return to South Africa in 1990, Sachs assisted with negotiations between the ANC and the National Party to end apartheid. And four years later, after the first democratic election, then-president Nelson Mandela appointed Sachs as a judge in the newly established Constitutional Court.

This is where his appreciation for art manifested itself. Sachs was asked to help to develop the architectural and artistic vision of the Constitutional Court at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. 

The father of three – he has two sons from his first marriage and one with his current wife Vanessa – has also donated a large part of his personal art collection to the court.

When did you start appreciating visual art? 
At the age of 10, [the late South African artist] Gregoire Boonzaaier was a friend of my mom and used to hang his pictures in our flat before packing them in the dickie [exterior] seat of his Chevrolet and driving out to the platteland to sell them. "A house without a painting is a house without a soul," Boonzaaier would say.

For you, what elements create a visual masterpiece? 
Imagination, colour, design, intensity, mystery.

What was the first piece of art you bought or were given? 
I bought a book of lithographed woodcuts by Picasso – many dealing with bullfights. I cut out pages and had them framed.

What's the most prized art piece in your collection?
An eight-headed woodcarving by the late Mozambican artist Alberto Chissano. Indira Gandhi wanted it, but he had promised it to me. After Ruth First was killed by a letter bomb in Maputo, he had it delivered to me. The sculpture is now part of the collection of Mozambican art, which I donated to the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

CNN refers to you as a "passionate art collector". 
I'm passionate when I acquire art, my heart beats wildly, whether it's a Makonde sculpture bought at the roadside, a Malangatana painting purchased at his studio or a Dumile Feni drawing found at the Marlborough Gallery. I often feel sick afterwards at having spent so much money, but have never once regretted the acquisition.

A Reggie Bar? David artwork. (All photographs by David Harrison, M&G)

You were given a collection of Dumile Feni's drawings and you also feature in the documentary about his life, Zwelidumile. Do you still have many of his pieces? 
We were close friends in exile in London. He gave me one drawing just after the Soweto uprising, but the other pieces I bought at galleries in London. I raised funds in the United States for his sculptural masterpiece History
to be enlarged, cast in bronze, and placed at the entrance to the Constitutional Court.

What are your thoughts on Feni's artworks? 
His work with pen and in clay is exquisite. He had all the extraordinary creativity and all the anguish of being a genius. I gave all his drawings to the Constitutional Court and only have two small ones left.

During apartheid, there were many forms of activism that challenged the regime – and visual art was one of them. Which artist do you feel truly fought against oppression through their work? 
Many fought in different ways. Dumile, Bill Ainslie, William Kentridge, Jane Alexander, Sue Williamson, Peter Clarke are just a few of them.

What about in contemporary South Africa? Do you feel that there is tolerance for activist artists such as The Spear's Brett Murray or Ayanda Mabulu, whose art piece was banned from the 2013 Art Fair in Johannesburg? 
As a former judge it is best that I say: No comment!

You were instrumental in assembling the Constitutional Court's art collection at Constitution Hill. What, in the collection, is your favourite?
Not a fair question. It's like asking who is your favourite child: Judith Mason's Blue Dress or John Baloyi's Ghost or Marlene Dumas's tapestries or … or… or…

While in exile in Mozambique and England, what art movements and artists from the two countries moved you the most? 
In Mozambique I immersed myself in the artists' movement. Art was life, it was death, it was hope, it was despair. I particularly admired the painter Malangatana and the sculptor Chissano, both of whom had created distinctive art forms and become more famous in their country than football stars. In the United Kingdom, I read about art, went to a few exhibitions, followed the public debates, but never felt deeply involved.

How did living in the two countries shape your appreciation for art? 
In very broad terms, in England I found visual art became increasingly based on technique and concept, rather than on deep inner vision and emotion. The heartbeat, the passion, the mystery and inventiveness of art in Mozambique captured me far more profoundly. I learnt to admire public art. It has given me joy to donate 95% of my artworks to UWC and the Constitutional Court. And the works are happy there.

Who is your favourite contemporary South Africa artist and why?
Uh uh, must I choose between Willie Bester and William Kentridge, or Wilma Cruise and Willem Boshoff, just to mention those whose names begin with the letter "W"?

What was the last piece of art you bought or were given?
Three murals painted by my son Alan Sachs on the walls in our completely rebuilt home on Clifton beach.

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