Constitution Hill - A Cultural Development
Report by participating artist, Terry Kurgan
Constitution Hill is a bold new initiative by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), a utility company of the City of Johannesburg tasked with economic development and urban regeneration. The project involves reconstructing a site that has historically been a place of secrecy, hardship and incarceration, into a beacon of democracy, human rights culture and sustainable urban renewal.
The precinct sits right between Braamfontein and Hillbrow, two complex and heterogeneous parts of the city that represent the changing face of Johannesburg. The City's colonial fortifications and its most notorious prisons will give rise to the new Constitutional Court. The new Court building, currently under construction on the site, is the anchor of a precinct that will provide a home and focal point for the institutions created by the Constitution - such as the Commission on Gender Equality - and a range of other tenants. As a mixed-use development, the precinct is expected to function as a 24-hour site with retail, commercial, residential and hospitality facilities.
At the moment, interwoven with this busy construction site and derelict fort and prison buildings are three living exhibitions. These are open to view, and are part of a feasibility study and business plan for a contemporary museum-like institution, that is currently being conceptualised by Johnnic Communications' Heritage, Education and Tourism (HET) team. HET won the Johannesburg Development Agency's tender earlier this year. This team has been tasked with creating the visitor experience, and developing ideas for all heritage, exhibition, education and tourism components on this extraordinary site in the very heart of Johannesburg.
The hugely multi-disciplinary HET team is made up of some of South Africa's most inspired and formidable creative thinkers: from educational consultants (Dhianaraj Chetty and Emilia Potenza), to architects (Nina Cohen who designed the international exhibition 'blank_ architecture, apartheid and after'), to writers (acclaimed journalists and authors Mark Gevisser and John Matshikiza), to television producers (Lauren Segal and Krisen Pather who created Get Real, Take 5, Sesame Street and Gazlam), to artists, academics, archivists, oral historians, tourism specialists, financial planners and more. Ralph Applebaum, who designed the Holocaust Museum in Washington amongst his many museum projects around the world, is an international consultant.
The site is resonant with layer upon layer of history and meaning. On the one hand it represents our fledgling democracy and an emerging culture of human rights, and then, of course, quite the opposite. The fort contains within its walls much of South Africa's 20th century history, and also some of the darkest moments from our recent past.
Three large temporary installations interact with certain key spaces on the site. They are there as an introduction to and orientation within the site, and also to invite public and visitor response to the questions they pose with regard to the possibilities that the site offers in the future. Visitors are able to record their impressions, memories, and responses onto specially created software in the Memory Room and Documentation Centre. These responses are being incorporated into the team's feasibility study and will impact upon the shape and vision of the institution.
The Fort Entrance
At the Fort Entrance, off Kotze Street, is an installation that poses questions about criminality. It also introduces the different kinds of inmates who were held in this prison: saints like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, violent criminals and murderers like Daisy De Melker, and then all the tens of thousands of ordinary people whose only crime was that they were black.
The Rampart Walk
The Fort Ramparts provide a unique vantage point over the site of Constitution Hill, Hillbrow, the city of Johannesburg, and, indeed, South Africa. They are a bridge between the past - as represented by the old prison buildings - and the future - as represented by the Constitutional Court. But the past remains misunderstood and the future still under construction. Using South Africa's Constitution and Bill of Rights, this exhibition looks at where we are today, standing on the ramparts of a society in transition, looking back at the difficulties of the past and the possibilities of the future.
"Three Women": Women's Gaol
Daisy de Melker, Nomathemba Funani, and Jeannie Noel. A murderer, an ordinary woman spurred to become a pass resister, and a leading political activist. These are the stories of three very different women who spent time at The Fort, in 1932, 1958, and 1976 respectively. Their ghosts and memories still occupy its cells and corridors.
Memory Room: Women's Gaol
All these exhibitions are starting points for larger ones, and in the Memory Room, visitors are invited to listen to recordings of ex-prisoners' memories, other people's responses, and to record their own memories of and responses to the site and Constitution Hill.
Constitution Hill is open to the public from 9 a.m to 6 p.m throughout the week, excluding Tuesdays. The artist recommends a late afternoon visit.