Constitutional Art

By Sarah Barret – Joburg 360

When the interior design of the new Constitutional Court budget was made available, Justice Albie Sachs and Justice Yvonne Mokgoro, spent the entire budget on one artwork; a splendid tapestry called ‘Humanity’ by Joseph Ndlovo. Their cap-in-hand request for more money was met with a stern ‘No’, and so the pair approached local artist Cecil Skotnes, who gladly donated a wood panel called ‘Freedom’. In doing so, he started a trend which resulted in over 600 works being added to the collection.

And what a glorious accompaniment to the court the art collection is. Albie Sachs says that art applies to emotion and to the heart, whereas the law applies to intellect. How, then, to combine the two? The answer lies in the collection’s themes of transition, social justice, human rights, constitutionalism, reparation and reconciliation. Some of the artworks even represent the artists’ own lived experiences during Apartheid, and so the relevance is palpable. A neon slogan of the Mozambican resistance movement keeps company with 8 slabs of Zimbabwean granite representing the number of days spent in prison by Mandela and all those sentenced at the Rivonia Trial; Bells of forgiveness are watched over by a pangolin made from cow hooves, and bones from the Cradle of Humankind brush sides with the three-headed dog from Kentridge’s play ‘Ubu and the Truth Commission’. Finally, a whimsical ‘Speaker of the House’ provides welcome relief from the harrowing stories of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission depicted in ‘The man who sang and the woman who kept silent’, colloquially known as The Blue Dress.

The collection receives funding from philanthropic organisations in the USA. This enables the works to be cleaned, restored, conserved and reframed where required. Works are rotated on a regular basis ensuring that the display remains fresh. In addition to those in the public gallery, further works may be viewed on certain days in the judges’ chambers, dining room, meeting rooms and library.

Art is also much in evidence in the architecture of the court building itself, where the lekgotla theme of ‘Justice Under a Tree’ is played out in tree-trunk mosaic pillars, leaf chandeliers, light flooding into the building through windows and skylights, and carpets reflecting shadows and the play of light on the forest floor. As Andrew Makin, one of the court’s architects, described it: ‘The art is not applied, it is integrated. The building is a product of the people of South Africa; of artisans, craftsmen, artists and architects. It is a real and material expression of their freedom, dignity and equality, and of the human capacity to imagine and create’. Examples of this can be seen in the colourful words ‘Constitution Court’ on the building’s facade, where the words are represented in all 11 official languages and in their own unique font. Likewise, in the 8m high wooden entrance doors on which the crafters have included carvings in all 11 official languages plus sign language and braille.

On June 16, our group of 18 took advantage of the site’s free access on Youth Day. Our visit included The Old Fort and its ramparts, the No 4 prison, the Women’s prison as well as the Constitution Court with a focus on some of the works in its art collection. It’s exciting to see renewed use of the Old Fort and its ramparts – which now house a coffee shop called The Prison Kitchen as well as a state-of-the-art recording studio called Flame. Mook Lion’s 2020 mural of Zolani from Freshly Ground juxtaposes the 1892 fort with the new developments at this world-class heritage site.

An application has been submitted by Constitution Hill for World Heritage Site status. I hope it succeeds.

See the CCAC website here: