(Blue dress), triptych
Found, sewn plastic bags, and oil on canvas
Background detail and personal comment:
On March 21, South Africa's new Constitutional Court will open on a site adjacent the old Fort prison. Located on a north-facing ridge, between the inner city neighbourhoods of Hillbrow and Braamfontein, the 12,000m2 building is an audacious structure celebrating the legal foundation of the new democracy.
Designed by the architectural team OMM Design Workshop and Urban Solutions (DWUS), the court building is a squat, three-storey structure that gracefully lies on the gently sloping landscape, as opposed to simply rising out of it. Much like Johannesburg's new(ish) Apartheid Museum, on the southern edge of the inner city, the building expresses an awareness of, and sensitivity towards its topography.
Amongst the court's many attractions is a rather curious collection of artworks. A rather grab bag compendium, the Constitutional Court Collection owes much to the efforts of one single personality, Justice Albie Sachs. Asked to point-out his favourite artwork, Justice Sachs referred to a series of works by the artist Judith Mason.
The centrepiece of Mason's triptych is a rather slight, gossamer blue dress suspended in the rafters above the gradually descending stairs that lead to the law library, on the building's northern aspect. Sewn out of blue plastic, the dress also forms the central motif of two, related paintings that complete the triptych.
Justice Sachs: Judith was listening to the radio while she was working, and she heard the story of a young African woman, a guerrilla, a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, whose body was retrieved in a shallow grave as a result of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's process. The person who executed her testified, and it was noted that the body was naked except for some covering in the pubic area, made of plastic bag.
It was this detail that affected Judith so much, and motivated her to sew the dress out of plastic bags. She said 'It is not the armour of God, it's the protection I can give you'. She has written some beautiful words around the base of the dress. The idea of the dress soaring became one of the centrepieces of the paintings that she did, and its relationship with the predator, the rather strange fence, grid-like structure.
I think she works a very deep instinctual level in terms of the imagery, with extraordinarily refined craft, producing a work that could only have come from South Africa. It's the work that is the most quintessentially South African in its imagination, in its reach, in its significance, in some ways the most extraordinary.
Judith's work is a very classical work, of pure intense emotion, with extraordinary craft of the hand and eye. But it is also a work intensely located in South African history, stemming directly from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It's her vision, her feelings, her sensibility that come together through, in effect producing what I consider to be one of the great works, internationally speaking, of late twentieth century art.
Although most of the artworks in the collection are donated, I gave Judith a little bit of money (in my personal capacity), peanuts compared to what it's worth. She was living on almost nothing. It is often the most impecunious artists who are the most generous, not invariably but often. Gerald Gordon's widow topped-up the payment when he died. Gordon was a Queens Council in Cape Town, a civil rights lawyer for decades. When he died, his widow wanted to do something in his honour. In truth, the payments are still well below what the works were really worth.
Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs was born in Johannesburg, and studied law in Cape Town. A prominent member of the exiled African National Congress, on April 7, 1988, he was the victim of a car bomb in Mozambican capital of Maputo. He detailed his arduous journey to full recovery in the book The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter.
Interview by Sean O'Toole.