/ 4 June 2021

The Portfolio: Niamh Walsh-Vorster

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The contentious work The Three Elephants have been vandalised more than once, under the supposed watchful eye of the eThekwini Municipality. (Photo Niamh Walsh-Vorster)

Andries Botha’s sculptures, The Three Elephants have been a contentious topic over the years, riddled with political interpretations, and local governmental bureaucracy. After being defaced several times, this past Sunday, anonymous Durban artists visited the site to place flowers on damaged and defaced parts of the artworks. 

The symbolism, according to Botha, of the elephants present “environmental metaphors, that have powerful religious and ancestral, and environmental resonance for the citizens of Durban”. The initial work was to include seven elephants, however, only three were completed. 

Grand in their design, the life-sized sculptures are hard to miss when driving into the city. The elephant’s frameworks are made of galvanised steel, with stainless steel mesh, which were filled by the artist and his team with large, grey rocks from a local quarry. The building of a single elephant would take more than a week, with a small team packing stones into the frames.

“Making outdoor sculptures in this manner evolved out of needing to create outdoor artworks that had limited metal recycle value to limit the criminal desirability of the works,” Botha said. 

Inspired by gabions, Botha designed and manufactured the elephants without an engineering precedent.

Built on a traffic island, their feet are designed to look as though they sink into the pavement, and are part of the city’s design. 

They are unassuming in their presence, but necessary in adding to the physical, artistic and cultural landscape. The “gentle giants” are calm next to the rush of passing cars, trucks and taxis.

The wire-and-stone pieces were commissioned by the eThekwini municipality — for R1.5-million — during the Soccer World Cup in 2010.

The political misconstruing of the meaning behind the work resulted in the public art pieces being targeted for destruction — the elephants were read as pro Inkatha Freedom Party (which has three elephants in its logo).

In 2012 the artist took the City to the high court, pressuring the municipality to protect the sculptures. Botha won the court case, and the pieces would be protected, surveilled and have first responders react in the case of vandalism.

In 2014, Botha and his team began to reconstruct the pieces and mend the broken parts. However, the artworks continue to be vandalised, with no intervention by the city.

Plans to remove the sculptures have not yet been confirmed.