by Antoinette du Plessis 9 January 2006

Cape Town’s V & A Waterfront, burning hot under the African sun, is a glittering monument to commercialism, reputed to be more profitable than Gauteng’s gold industry. Accurate or not, this comparison articulates just how successfully South Africa has joined the global consumer culture since becoming a democracy. 

Tourists flock to the Waterfront, where, not far from the ferry to Robben Island, a sculpture group has been erected on a formerly inconspicuous site now called Nobel Square to celebrate South Africa’s peace laureates (Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela). Portrait figures in bronze of the four by Claudette Schreuders were unveiled on December 16 last year, together with a fifth piece, also in bronze, by Noria Mabasa. 

Schreuders’s figures are in her signature style, an idiom appropriated from colonial African curio carvings depicting Europeans. The larger than life figures are stocky, firmly frontal, their features relaxed, their expressionless eyes gazing dreamily into the distance. Their formal simplicity accentuates the iconic stature these men have reached; they face the crowds like a row of giant toys, Table Mountain their backdrop. They are totally accessible: visitors walk around them, converse with them, photograph them close-up. Schreuders’s brilliantly simple device of working in the style of African curios gains a super-human dimension in this context where tourism and patriotism merge seamlessly into a public-private partnership of nationalistic sentiment and commercialism. 

Mabasa’s piece, true to her well-known carving style, appears to be formally more complex. A combination of mythology and narrative, it contains numerous figures. Dominating the work are Mandela and De Klerk with hands clasped in triumphant salute, inviting the viewer to join them in celebrating freedom, racial tolerance and reconciliation. Around them a baboon, an elephant, uniformed policemen and bare-chested African warriors combine to form a single cairn shape, the grave of oppression. Perhaps ironically, it calls to mind the Voortrekker Monument friezes. Though it has been stated that Mabasa’s sculpture was intended to commemorate the role of women and children in the achievement of peace and democracy, women and children are conspicuously absent from the work. Like Schreuders’s figures, Mabasa’s work also invokes curio art on a grand scale, turning carved wooden figures offered to tourists as souvenirs into the monumentality of bronze. 

The throng of tourists around the sculptures clearly indicate interest and enjoyment and it is indeed refreshing to see public sculpture that is not elevated away from the space inhabited by mere mortals. But public sculpture remains public sculpture. Commercially Nobel Square may be a great success and politically it may be a grand gesture of state largesse and national pride, but is it art?
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