How Art is Defining the Role of the Constitution and Justice in South Africa.
“Art and justice are usually represented as dwelling in different domains: art is said to relate to the human heart, justice to human intelligence. Rationality is sometimes seen as inimical to art, and passion as hostile to justice. The Constitution Court Art Collection shows how art and human rights overlap and reinforce each other. At the core of the Bill of Rights and of the artistic endeavor represented in the Court is respect for human dignity. It is this that unites art and justice.”
– Former Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs
An inspiring and poignant collection of over 400 artworks has been formed in South Africa’s Constitutional Court. More than an aesthetic addition to the Constitutional Court building; it is a unique collection of South African and international heritage that contributes to education, critical debate, and research on the roles of the Constitution and the Court.
The themes of the artworks.are connected to the Constitution in some way and all contribute to the Court’s special environment. Media include tapestries, engravings, sculptures and paintings — also included are examples of bead-work and craft objects. Some are landscapes, abstract works, portraits that honor working people, others evoke the past or celebrate new beginnings, and the works of local artists predominate. . All were gifts to the highest court in South Africa, and are a tribute to the Constitution and its values.
Dozens of leading South African artists are represented in the collection. There are large tapestries by Marlene Dumas, a selection by Gerard Sekoto from his Paris period, and drawings and a major sculpture by Dumile Feni. Other artists represented include William Kentridge, Judith Mason, Willie Bester, Karel Nel, Cecil Skotnes, Hamilton Budaza, Kim Berman, Sue Williamson, Anton van Wouw, John Baloyi, Andrew Verster, Marc Chagall, and many others.
“Every day, as we try to answer difficult questions concerning fundamental human rights, the moving works of art and uplifting design of our building constantly remind us of what should never be forgotten: that justice is for people and that all people are united in their inherent human dignity. –Former Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, Pius Langa
The collection was assembled from the beginning of the Constitutional Court in 1994. Justice Albie Sachs was appointed with his colleague Justice Yvonne Mokgoro to take charge of decor when the Court was housed in a rented space.
Justice Sachs was one of the founding judges of the Constitutional Court and he devoted himself to the challenge with passion and dedication — taking nearly 10 years to gather the pieces.. The Court’s original decorating budget, the sum of R 10 000, was used to purchase a single work – Humanity, a tapestry .by Joseph Ndlovu. The other acquisitions were donations from artists, gallery owners and patrons of the arts.
Fund raising for the project has been difficult because the collection is governed by the Constitutional Court Trust, which is prevented from receiving funding from entities that might have a possibility of future litigation before the Constitutional Court. As a result this therefore precluded many local foundations and charities, since they are linked to corporations active in South Africa.
Judge Sachs went on a speaking tour of the United States to raise additional funds and contributions were also received from the Dutch and Finnish governments, the Getty Foundation and others. Some projects, such as Artists for Human Rights, donated artworks. There were also a large number of art commissions.
My hope is that this spirit of shared humanity, so clearly conveyed by the Court’s collection, will continue to inspire judges and ordinary people alike in our collective pursuit of justice”
– Former Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, Pius Langa
Key artworks in the Constitutional Court collection include:
The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent by Judith Mason. Often referred to as the “Blue Dress”, this is one of the collection’s most powerful works. The triptych was inspired by the execution of two liberation movement cadres by the security police – Phila Ndwandwe and Harald Sefola, whose deaths during the struggle were described at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) by their killers.
Prison Sentences by Willem Boshoff. These eight slabs are made from Zimbabwean black granite and inscribed with the tally of days served behind bars by the Rivonia trialists who were sentenced to life in prison in 1964.
Nine Body Maps. This series of intimate self-portraits is the result of a community art project that gave those suffering from HIV and AIDS a platform to express their experiences of living with the disease.
The Three Sentinels. Standing outside the building at three different corners are three sculptures referred to as ‘the three sentinels’. Adjacent to the building’s main entrance is History by Dumile Feni, a large bronze sculpture (based on a smaller clay artwork from 1987) that reminds visitors of the brutality of the master-slave relationship.
The South African flag. One of the most impressive features of the court chamber is the 6m by 2.5m intricately beaded and embroidered South African flag. The flag was hand-stitched over a period of six months by a group of women from KwaZulu-Natal. On completion of the work their names were also embroidered onto the flag in recognition of indigenous craftsmanship as a form of art.
“The building design expresses high hope for, and abiding faith in a united and democratic Sough Africa able to take its rightful place as a soveirgn state in the family of nations.. The Constitution, Court building and artwork share an animating theme: Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected. The art displayed in the Court is a perfect match for the buildings design. .The collection affords the visitor, and all who work at the Court, a moving and delightful impression at every step and turn. Imbued with the spirit of emancipated humanity, it is the most vibrant collection I have seen in any courthouse in the world”
– US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The Court, a potent representation of the democracy that replaced apartheid, was erected on the ruins of the Old Fort, a notorious prison that housed political activists including Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and many others — and its location symbolizes the triumph of hope over a troubled past.
The symbolic importance of its setting was constantly in the forefront during the planning process and helped to refine the architectural plan of the project. The design brief stipulated that the building have meaning and significance to the evolving national cultural identity.of South Africa.
Artists and craftspeople were invited to participate in the building’s make-up by submitting proposals for individual elements many of the building components were conceptualized and customized by individual craftspeople.
A pdf brochure about the collection is available on the website http://ccac.org.za/
Touring the Constitutional Court of South Africa with Justice Albie Sachs. A video that explores the history, creation and art of the Constitutional Court is available on youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSH7ToW1NsM&t=1093s