The art of remembering
"It all starts with this building," remarks Albie Sachs proudly from his chair, which is unceremoniously plonked amidst a clutter of stacked boxes, bundled paperwork and scattered craft objects. The veteran liberation fighter and current constitutional court judge has just taken occupation of his smart new office.
Notwithstanding the evident disorder, the judge's chamber is characterised by an airy calm. Maybe it is the windows; they flood the room with a superabundance of natural light while also offering a resplendent view of the court's manicured courtyard.
"Public buildings normally shut off the outside world," he continues, elaborating on how the architectural blueprint for the new court aims to welcome the public. "Normally you get swallowed up in the power of the state or corporate entity, but here the building is saying 'I belong to you, you belong to me'".
These words have an almost literal resonance. Looking from the judge's second floor window, I see the Hillbrow Tower in the near distance. It peaks over the court's signature clay-coloured roof tiling, curiously assessing what's happening.
On March 21, South Africa's new Constitutional Court opened on a site adjacent to the old Fort prison. Located on a north-facing ridge, between the inner city neighbourhoods of Hillbrow and Braamfontein, the 12000 m_ building is an audacious structure. Much like Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum, on the southern edge of the inner city, the building expresses an awareness of, and sensitivity to its topography. The squat, three-storey structure gracefully lies on the gently sloping landscape. Unlike the nearby civic centre, it is no imposing monolith.
It is also a cheeky building. Even before it opened, the public was already ponderously engaged by some of the building's more elaborate and visible finishes, not the least being a collection of decorative chimney covers designed by a team led by Michael and Anthea Methven. The buff-coloured designs were recently removed from the court's roof after it was hinted that they were suggestively phallic - penises on the roof of South Africa's most important court.
Quoted in a daily newspaper, Sachs said that the Gaudiesque overtones did not fit with the court structure. It was a revealing comment. A cursory glance at the court's Afro-centric adornments - functional elements that add a decorative, almost kitsch flourish to the court building - certainly suggests Gaudi. Personally, I was immediately reminded of Melrose Arch.
Possibly it's the colourful mosaics everywhere. The angled pillars in the court's foyer, for instance, have all been adorned (only partially) with mosaic cladding. Clustered together to suggest the organic character of a small copse of trees, the pillars sport reddish brown mosaic tiles on the lower sections, with greens higher up, to suggest the colour of foliage. "It's just to hint at the motif of justice under a tree," elaborates Sachs, "rather than a literal representation of a forest."
Intrigued by these and other vernacular design motifs, I asked lead architect Andrew Makin how this auspicious public building distinguishes itself from Melrose Arch, Johannesburg's widely f�ted, post-apartheid 'African' mall.
The latter development has caustically been described as a gated community masquerading as an edge city, and proposes a problematic model for future South African architecture.
Makin, a member of the architectural collective OMM Design Workshop and Urban Solutions, was however, quickly dismissive of my comparison. "The idea with the court is not to make it like Melrose Arch," he explained. "Melrose Arch is incredibly elitist. The purpose of this building is to be catalytic. The site has been designed so that it will reconnect with the city."
Sachs agrees. "This whole area is being developed in an integrated way," he explains. "Some people don't like the word 'holistic', so I'll say integrated." What this means, in actuality, is that the constitutional court precinct will act as a hub, a central axis and meeting point in a still divided city. "It will not be like a government precinct that closes after office hours," Sachs emphasises.
One way in which the new court will engage with the public is through a large number of art exhibits, some permanent features of the building, others of a more temporary nature. When the building was designed, the architects made an allocation for artistic finishes. These now include works such as wire chandeliers by artist Walter Oltmann, custom-made doors for each justice's chamber, as well as an unusual series of swivelling sunshades decorated with private narratives.
"It's a point worth stressing that the funding for the artwork was 1% of the entire budget, remarks Sachs, "It was a good principle that the state acknowledged, albeit small." As to the charge of possible nepotism, Sachs dutifully adds: "All of this has been done through competitions and collective wisdom."
The temporary exhibits form a counterpoint to the main building, and are quite diverse. These include archival displays of prison memorabilia as well as newly commissioned artworks, such as documentary photographs by the duo of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. Most of these temporary exhibits have been realised under the curatorship of Clive van den Berg and Churchill Madikida, both well-established artists.
But it is not the temporary exhibits that really animate or interpret the significance of the new court. Rather it is an eclectic collection of artworks far closer to Judge Sachs, works that he has personally played an active role in collecting over the past few years that tell the whole story. A previous visit I made to his offices confirmed his status as an art patron - I saw almost as many art catalogues as legal documents.
"The court's collection came about in totally different era," he elaborates, a Highveld thunderstorm rumbling outside, "all the loose art that is now being placed in the building came about in a rather haphazard way. [Justice] Yvonne Mokgoro and I, in effect, were the selectors. We didn't have money to go out and buy work, or commission work."
"It was work that came to us," he says. "It is a collection that collected itself, and it is very much based on the passion and enthusiasm that the artists and arts community had for the achievement of democracy and what the Constitutional Court meant."
A rather eclectic ensemble to say the least, the Constitutional Court Collection includes works by well-known artists such as Norman Catherine, Marlene Dumas, Dumile Feni, Kim Berman, Gerard Sekoto and Cecil Skotnes, hanging alongside works by lesser-known or emerging artists, including Georgie Papageorge. Cynics will correctly dismiss the collection as a somewhat incoherent sampling of South African art, one that has additionally been filtered by a very distinctive personality. This criticism, however, tends to overlook the fundamental optimism the collection embodies.
A hand-stitched wall hanging, made by Jane Makhubele, beautifully conveys this point. The work shows Nelson Mandela casting his ballot at Ohlange High School, north of Durban, in 1994. It is a jubilant work, and when viewed alongside pieces such as Sue Williamson's portraits from her 'A Few South Africans' series, it takes on a celebratory tone.
"I actually bought it for my home from the art dealer Natalie Knight," remarks Sachs when asked about the Mandela work. "I loved it so much that I felt I shouldn't hoard it. It belongs in the court."
The collection is not solely devoted to examples of 'high' art, and includes a disparate selection of vernacular craft objects. Many of these were purchased by Sachs himself, while on his extensive travels across the African continent, which included stops in Angola and Ivory Coast amongst other places.
"I had to learn to bargain," he laughs with an air of nostalgia. "I did my BA [in bargaining] in Dakar, in their bazaar, and finally got my PHD at the Cairo bazaar. You have to be very tough and resolute there."
The mild-mannered justice is, however, somewhat wary of seeing the craft objects placed in the main gallery space, which is formed by a long series of gently descending stairs leading off the main foyer. "It might look a little too playful or trivial for quite a stately building," he ponderously conjectures.
Having played such a pivotal role as arbiter for the collection, I ask what criteria were used in accepting or rejecting submissions to the court. His answer introduces the subtle play of ambiguity and contradiction, an almost unavoidable aspect of art appreciation really.
"The first criterion was that nothing must be repellent to people coming to court to defend their fundamental rights," he asserts without hesitation. "There is a huge scope for denunciatory art in the world, and our constitution defends it, and as a judge I will defend the right to use art for denunciation, for criticism, even savage criticism, but that shouldn't be in a court where people come to have their rights defended."
This is a tricky statement - one that is necessarily loaded with suggestions of Sachs' idiosyncratic view on history. After the fall of Apartheid, the judge once famously stated that writers and artists could stop being political.
Using somewhat blunt rhetoric, he said artists could lay down their weapons of culture and get on with the business of producing work released from the imperatives of dealing with Apartheid. If only it were it that simple. Sachs, however, implicitly acknowledges this when I ask him to identify his favourite work.
It does not take him very long to single out Judith Mason's name, and point to a rather slight, gossamer blue dress suspended in the rafters. According to the judge, the work was made after Mason heard the story of a young woman, an Umkhonto we Sizwe member, whose body was retrieved from a shallow grave following a TRC hearing. The artist responded to this particular story by sewing together a makeshift, blue plastic dress, which she later incorporated as a motif into two painted images.
Viewed collectively, the works certainly bristle with Mason's characteristically intense emotion. More importantly, they do not eschew any sense of amnesia with regards the horrors of the past. "It's the work that is the most quintessentially South African in its imagination, in its reach, and in its significance," enthuses Sachs. I am tempted to ask him whether it could not be construed as denunciatory, but decide to leave its interpretation opened-ended and up to the individual viewer.
Time is also pressing - those boxes need sorting. As we move to greet each other, the sun sneaks out from behind the large dark clouds speedily on their way to Pretoria. "The delight of this building comes from the light, the volumes, the spaces, the juxtapositions, from the imagination," the judge muses, offering a de facto summary of his new office space, South Africa's Constitutional Court.
"The idea is that the artwork would not simply be ornamentation that is stuck on, or conversely dominate in a way that the building would somehow seem like a gallery for show-off artwork." He pauses, waves at a colleague passing on a lower level, and offers a last thought.
"This is not a show-off building like the Guggenheim Bilbao, it is a place for ordinary people to function."
A shortened version of this article originally appeared in the Sunday Times, February 22, under the title 'The hanging judge'.