Michael Elion: Eyewear art raises shades of debate

Michael Elion, the artist behind the giant Wayfarers staring at Robben Island, says he is open to the idea of his work becoming an open site of protest.

Elion’s controversial artwork, partially sponsored by Ray-Ban eyewear manufacturer and called Perceiving Freedom, was spray-painted earlier this week as a statement against its corporate reflection. The work has been criticised on social media.

The statue was positioned on the Sea Point promenade by Elion to commemorate Nelson Mandela, “because it would be crazy of me not to acknowledge that the device is looking at Robben Island”.

Mandela was incarcerated on the island for 18 of his 27 years as prisoner.

A photograph of Mandela wearing similarly shaped glasses is positioned in the accompanying inscription.

It was also stencilled with the words “Myopic Art” and images of slain Marikana miner Mgcineni Noki by the Tokolos Stencil Crew. This week, a petition calling for the artwork to be removed pending an investigation into, among other things, “how Art54 and the City of Cape Town allowed public art to function as advertising” was slowly gaining signatures. Artist Candice Breitz, who fielded a debate on the artwork on her Facebook page, was one of the 300 who had signed the petition by Wednesday.

Elion laid charges against her and fellow artists Hermann Niebuhr and Stephen Hobbs with incitement to violence.

‘Sending a street fighter’
During the debate on Breitz’s page, Niebuhr wrote: “Tell that charlatan Michael Elion that we’re sending a Jo’burg street fighter [artist] Stephen Hobbs down to settle this,” a comment Elion interpreted as a threat to his personal safety.

“Do I know who Stephen Hobbs is? No,” said Elion. “Do I know he’s not a street fighter? No. I am not fearing for my life, I am worried about my personal safety.”

Elion said Breitz had been added to the charge list because, “soon after the post about Hobbs, she liked it. In her criticism, she’s tempered in her views. She should have distanced herself from that statement but she didn’t.”

Niebuhr countered that his comment was innocuous. “I meant that you need to talk to someone who knows about public art,” he said. “It’s in the context of Facebook to be jokey, but he has responded to it by being uber-literal and hypersensitive.

“He’s turning it into a circus. My point was that he was not qualified to deal with this mandate [of creating public art]. How much public consultation went into that thing?”

Niebuhr said the artwork offended him on three levels. “One was linking it to Mandela, two is the fact that Ray-Ban is behind it. The third thing is that it is a conversation about white privilege.

“It should be a conversation that Cape Town is having within itself; about how to use its public space and who it should be paying to do that. Now it’s a conversation about white privilege talking to itself.”

‘Oversimplified explainer’
Pondering the way his artwork has been perceived, Elion said: “Maybe its meaning should change.

“Maybe it does not have to be fixed in space and time. My major error was sending an oversimplified explainer to the arts intelligentsia. It’s a public piece and I didn’t want to write something too intellectual for passers-by to read.”

In a statement released after being accused of incitement to violence, Breitz said: “The process of selecting and commissioning the work of art has been faulty and opaque to the public from beginning to end.

“Prior to the installation of the work, the City of Cape Town was not informed by Elion that he would be invoking Mandela to pimp his Ray-Bans, nor even that he had successfully won Ray-Ban as a sponsor for the work (which the city was not capable of fully funding itself). Although this information is now freely available and, despite the critical furore that has ensued as a result, the city has chosen to leave the work in place and to essentially throw Michael Elion to the dogs.”

Councillor Johan van der Merwe, acting mayoral committee member for tourism, events and economic development, said: “The Perceiving Freedom artwork is not in contravention of any by-laws. When the artist responsible for Perceiving Freedom approached Art54, no mention was made of a commercial sponsor or a link with Nelson Mandela. Approval was granted for his initial concept.

“The objective of public art is to spark debate and elicit responses from the community, both for and against the works.”

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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