The large digitally-woven wool tapestry by
acclaimed artist Marlene Dumas, the
highest paid woman artist in the world.
A Luta Continua by Thomas Mulcaire is
one of the latest additions to the
Wool tapestries, hand-woven by
members of a rural empowerment
project in KwaZulu-Natal, are fixed
to acoustic panels.
(Images: Wilma den Hartigh)
• Jane Lane
+27 11 359 7400
Wilma den Hartigh
South Africa’s Constitutional Court is home to one of the country’s most talked about art collections, but here you’ll find more than just pretty pictures on a wall. Each piece tells a story of South Africa’s history and the struggle for freedom and equality.
As you make your way up the steps leading to the court entrance, it becomes clear that this is more than just a court building; it is a work of art.
Besides the required security check at the entrance, it has done away with the austerity, pomp and ceremony that one usually associates with a court.
Jane Lane, curator of the Constitutional Court’s art collection, says the court building was designed to be a friendly space.
Here members of the public are as welcome as the judges who work here. Anyone, irrespective of their background or knowledge of art, can come inside and take a look around.
Telling the story of transformation
Lane says transformation is a central theme of all the pieces on display at the court.
Each work was selected for its intellectual and emotional meaning and is a tribute to the values of South Africa’s constitution, widely regarded as being the most progressive in the world.
“The art tells the story of where we’ve been, but also where we are going to,” Lane says.
Perhaps as remarkable as the scope and size of the collection – which consists of more than 300 artworks in a range of media including tapestries, sculptures, ceramics, photographs, engravings and paintings – is the way in which it was gathered.
Former Justice Albie Sachs, who was appointed to the court by Nelson Mandela in 1994, played a leading role in selecting the art, the first public collection of its kind post apartheid.
Together with former Justice Yvonne Mokgoro, who was appointed to the bench at the same time as Sachs, he spent over ten years gathering the eclectic pieces.
“It is unusual to have this type of art in a court building. It has a niche in our history,” says Lane.
For Sachs, the process of going about collecting the art was more than finding investment pieces to adorn the walls and walkways of the court building. Each work was selected for its meaning, but over the years many have become very valuable.
One such piece is the large digitally-woven wool tapestry by acclaimed artist Marlene Dumas, the highest paid woman artist in the world.
She was born in Kuilsriver in the Western Cape in 1953 and left South Africa in 1976 on a scholarship to study at the visual arts institute, Atelier ’63 in Haarlem, Holland.
The huge three-part tapestry, The Benefit of the Doubt 2, shows three black and white figures against an ochre-yellow background. This work is a copy of the original which is displayed in the Netherlands.
In a description of this particular work, Dumas said the tapestry makes reference to people in the dock who are innocent until proven guilty. The tapestry’s theme of law, justice, innocence and freedom makes it a fitting piece for the court.
With a modest budged of R10 000 (US$1400) allocated for decor of the new court building, Sachs bought Humanity, a tapestry by Joseph Ndlovu. It hangs in what used to be Sachs’ chambers.
Most of the pieces in the collection were donated by artists, gallery owners and patrons of the arts. Sachs also donated art from his private collection.
Although the collection features many works by established South African artists, pieces by ordinary South Africans also feature prominently.
Welcome to the court
At the entrance to the court, you are immediately greeted by the grand double volume entrance hall, flooded with natural light from slatted skylights and large glass windows, which typify the transparency of the court.
The foyer, which was designed to resemble a forest, reflects the message of the court’s logo, “justice under a tree”, a traditional African form of dispute resolution.
The seven clusters of concrete columns, designed by ceramic mosaic artist Jane Durand, fill the double volume space. The slanting pillars are a metaphorical tree, where justice is open and participatory.
Each cluster is decorated with detailed mosaic inlays in shades of green, blue, orange and red.
Walter Oltman, who received the 2001 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art, designed the encased wire leaf-like chandeliers that are suspended from the ceiling between the columns. These represent the forest canopy.
The foyer also incorporates symbolic reminders of South Africa’s journey from oppression to freedom and democracy.
The awaiting trial block stairwell embedded in the building is one of these elements.
The Constitutional Court, situated at Constitution Hill in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, was constructed on the site where the apartheid government built a high-security prison in 1893.
On this stairwell, original graffiti inscriptions by people who were jailed in this prison are visible.
In some circles the notorious prison was known as the Johannesburg Fort and in others as Number Four, the name given to the terrifying section in which black men were jailed.
Hundreds of people were imprisoned here, including famous figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela.
It is difficult not to notice the neon installation on the embedded stairwell, which looks just like the type of signage one would see in Las Vegas. It is the work of Thomas Mulcaire, a South African artist living in Brazil, and one of the latest additions to the court’s collection.
The piece features the words A Luta Continua (a Portuguese phrase that means “the struggle continues”). Although the style of this piece is very different to the other art works in the collection, it still conveys the main message of transformation.
The phrase was the rallying cry of the Frelimo movement during Mozambique’s war for independence between 1962 and 1975.
It was also the title of a Mozambique-inspired song popularised by South African singer Miriam Makeba and was later released it on her album Welela in 1989.
What makes the court’s art collection so distinctive is that it has a strong focus on functional art. Everyday objects such as doors, stairs and even acoustic panels in the court chamber have been transformed into works of art.
In the main court chamber, forms of art such as weaving and beadwork feature prominently.
Wool tapestries, hand-woven by members of a rural empowerment project in KwaZulu-Natal, are fixed to acoustic panels. The beaded South African flag, the only decorative piece in the courtroom, was made by a women’s group of artisans whose names are etched onto the flag.
“It is a very informal space, but the design doesn’t come across as frivolous,” she says.
The heavy steel doors that separate the court chamber from the foyer, designed by Andre Lindsay and Myra Fassler, consist of many small copper plates with etchings inspired by Ghanaian fabric designs. The individual square plates were all painted by different artists.
Lane says that even the square brass nosings on the steps leading down to the judges’ bench have a story. They were designed by Jabu Nala, a resident of the high-density suburb Hillbrow in Johannesburg, using patterns of traditional beer pots.
The ribbon windows in the court chamber were designed in such a way to open onto the public walkway next to the court building.
“Sometimes children walking past press their noses against the glass to look inside. It is a reminder of the court’s humanity. It exists for the benefit of South Africa’s people.”