The Art of Law

Carol Becker February 24, 2004

A detail from a mural, "Our History," by Sipho Ndlovu.

South Africa Pres­i­dent Thabo Mbe­ki will offi­cial­ly open Con­sti­tu­tion Hill March 21 — Human Rights Day — to coin­cide with his country’s 10th anniver­sary of demo­c­ra­t­ic rule. It is the biggest urban renew­al project since the end of apartheid and one of the first major pub­lic build­ing com­plex­es since the African Nation­al Con­gress took lead­er­ship in 1994. Its heart is the Con­sti­tu­tion­al Court. Through archi­tec­tur­al design the build­ing attempts to cre­ate a space that is open, egal­i­tar­i­an, diverse, uplift­ing, unde­ni­ably con­tem­po­rary, African, and — dri­ven by the pas­sion of Jus­tice Albie Sachs — filled with art.

Tran­si­tion­al South Africa nev­er looks for­ward with­out look­ing back. In this spir­it, new pub­lic build­ings such as the Apartheid Muse­um, the Nel­son Man­dela Muse­um, the Leg­isla­tive Build­ings for the North­ern Cape Province, the Hec­tor Pieter­son Muse­um, Sowe­to, and now the Con­sti­tu­tion­al Court Com­plex are becom­ing mnemon­ic aids to buried emo­tions. Artists who played key roles in the strug­gle against apartheid are cre­at­ing a visu­al lan­guage to express the com­plex­i­ty and con­tra­dic­to­ry nature of locat­ing his­to­ry and vision in phys­i­cal space.

This project is built on the site of the Old Fort, con­struct­ed by Trans­vaal Boer leader Paul Kruger’s Zuid Afrikaan­sche Repub­liek in 1899. It was designed to pro­tect the set­tle­ment from gold-seek­ing for­eign­ers and the min­ing vil­lage of Johan­nes­burg below. But dur­ing the Anglo-Boer War the fort was used to hold Boer cap­tives. It was a hor­rif­ic place that func­tioned as a prison until 1983. Ordi­nary crim­i­nals as well as activists fight­ing oppres­sion — includ­ing Nel­son Man­dela, Mahat­ma Gand­hi, Nobel Peace Prize win­ner Chief Albert Luthuli, and human rights lawyer Bram Fis­ch­er — were incar­cer­at­ed or detained there.

For­mer pris­on­ers have been invit­ed to take part in an oral his­to­ry project by the Johan­nes­burg Devel­op­ment Agency. Bhe­ki Bhek­i­sizwe Sibeko was detained in 1976 for ter­ror­ist activ­i­ties. Of his time there he says: This is the place where I last saw many of my friends, peo­ple whose bod­ies have nev­er been found and whose rel­a­tives are still seek­ing answers. … We were beat­en and thrown around like rug­by balls.”

The dream

The dream was to trans­form a site thick with the injus­tices and bru­tal­i­ties of the past into a sym­bol­ic, func­tion­al and exquis­ite space for the present and future. Jus­tice Albie Sachs hoped the build­ing also would be gen­tle rather than for­bid­ding; entranc­ing rather than mon­u­men­tal; humane rather than aus­tere; a build­ing of the high­est ideals for the hum­blest of per­sons.” The build­ing had to have the grav­i­tas nec­es­sary for a con­sti­tu­tion­al court but in no way flaunt the pow­er of the state. It need­ed to be dra­mat­ic to ush­er in the new South African con­sti­tu­tion — per­haps the most rad­i­cal human rights state­ment yet writ­ten as a nation­al doc­u­ment. The court also required room to breathe and a cer­tain auton­o­my” says Sachs, to show its inde­pen­dence.” The idea itself embod­ied a deep sig­ni­fi­ca­tion, before it ever became a phys­i­cal reality.

At a time when so much of wealthy urban South Africa is bask­ing in an inte­ri­or­ized Tus­can twi­light,” as Lind­say Brem­n­er writes, gat­ed and sub­ur­ban­ized to make it safe” and pro­tect­ed from those out­side — Con­sti­tu­tion­al Hill is the oppo­site. The archi­tects and design­ers have opened out the site, con­vinced that safe­ty comes from cre­at­ing true pub­lic space, filled with meet­ing places, edu­ca­tion­al loca­tions, cof­fee shops, and gar­dens, alive with human inter­ac­tion day and night. It also is essen­tial to all those involved that the court not feel somber, but rather filled with aes­thet­ic joy­ful­ness, wel­com­ing cit­i­zens as they go about their every­day life in the city.

The art

At the core of the vision is an effort to refine this inno­v­a­tive court and its sur­round­ings with the work of artists and arti­sans: from the fin­ish­es on the build­ing and the designs for the sun­screens to the water pools, fur­ni­ture and des­ig­nat­ed exhi­bi­tion spaces. Artists from all regions of South Africa were invit­ed to exam­ine the 31 pos­si­ble venues for artwork.

Added is the gigan­tic col­lec­tion of art donat­ed by many of South Africa’s most respect­ed artists. The Dutch gov­ern­ment con­tributed The Pre­sump­tion of Inno­cence,” three large tapes­tries by Mar­lene Dumas. Artist William Ken­tridge, whose father was a cel­e­brat­ed South African attor­ney, donat­ed a very large, vul­ner­a­ble paint­ing of a naked, sleep­ing man (per­haps a self-por­trait). The col­lec­tion includes Judith Mason’s Plas­tic Blue Dress” from the Truth Com­mis­sion Series” and Kim Berman’s The Fires of Truth.” The South African Nation­al Gallery has lent the col­lec­tion paint­ings from Ger­ard Sekoto’s Paris Peri­od” and there are a num­ber of works from Dumile Feni.

Togeth­er the his­to­ry of South Africa, in all its tur­moil and pain as well as its abun­dant joy­ful­ness, is repro­duced. No oth­er Con­sti­tu­tion­al Court or its equiv­a­lent has dared to incor­po­rate so many images of the past abus­es of its for­mer legal sys­tem. It inspires great con­fi­dence to know that mul­ti­ple sys­tems of human thought can coex­ist, com­ple­ment and embell­ish each oth­er in this judi­cial con­text. It is heart­en­ing that for the new South Africa, intu­ition and cre­ativ­i­ty are as much at the cen­ter of what it means to be human as is the ratio­nal. The com­plex­i­ty and direct­ness of this vision demon­strates that simul­ta­ne­ous expe­ri­ences of real­i­ty exist and that true diver­si­ty can be found in their rep­re­sen­ta­tions. Noth­ing has so vivid­ly depict­ed the incred­i­ble psy­chic dam­age caused by apartheid to all indi­vid­u­als as art and lit­er­a­ture. Noth­ing has so embod­ied the poten­tial for heal­ing as the enor­mous range of cre­ativ­i­ty South Africa man­i­fests in mul­ti­ple forms of artis­tic-design pro­duc­tion. And because this legal sys­tem embraces dif­fer­ence, it con­fi­dent­ly cel­e­brates and there­fore does not need to repress this range of human expression.

The choice to fill the court with art is large­ly due to the wis­dom of Jus­tice Sachs, who is com­mit­ted to exhibit­ing this range of orig­i­nal images that have kept the South African exu­ber­ance for life alive dur­ing the country’s most hor­rif­ic times. It is from this past that the new con­sti­tu­tion has emerged. This sto­ry should be reflect­ed on the walls of the new court with an art exhi­bi­tion that, for Sachs, must be tru­ly excit­ing and not just pic­tures of dead judges.”

Such artis­tic inter­ven­tion also is very much in keep­ing with the his­to­ry of the anti-apartheid strug­gle. Artists and the images they cre­at­ed helped chron­i­cle the hor­rors of apartheid for the world while mir­ror­ing them back to the nation itself. And art and artists, design and design­ers, are here now in this his­toric, exalt­ed and sym­bol­ic con­text to chron­i­cle South Africa’s new social reality.

Every inch of Con­sti­tu­tion­al Hill has been thought through with the inten­tion of ren­der­ing the val­ues of the con­sti­tu­tion phys­i­cal. From these val­ues are derived what are called the site’s over­rid­ing themes: Free­dom, Equal­i­ty, Dig­ni­ty, Democ­ra­cy, Non-Racism, Non-Sex­ism, Social Jus­tice, Rule of Law, Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.” It is hoped that these ethics will be man­i­fest­ed in the exhi­bi­tions and ped­a­gog­i­cal his­tor­i­cal inter­ven­tions, but also in the expe­ri­en­tial — how the site feels and what it com­mu­ni­cates visu­al­ly. The routes by which peo­ple move around the hilly spaces, for exam­ple, have been con­cep­tu­al­ized as wind­ing paths as well as stair­ways, to sim­u­late the switch­backs of the African land­scape, so that rur­al vis­i­tors will feel at home in this urban set­ting. The court­room itself has been designed so that the judge, the jurors and those being tried sit at the same height.

This is a build­ing of the 21st Cen­tu­ry, not only because the archi­tec­ture is inno­v­a­tive but because it attempts to embody a com­plex set of philo­soph­i­cal, con­cep­tu­al goals as it seeks to achieve a human scale. At every turn, those who designed the space appear to have been con­scious of the oblig­a­tion nev­er to for­get the blood that was spilled and the minds and lives lost on this site. And at every turn, they also have cre­at­ed a space that is inspir­ing, acces­si­ble, ped­a­gog­i­cal and light. Once again, in South Africa, the mirac­u­lous has evolved out of the dis­as­trous, and we are amazed.

Car­ol Beck­er is dean of fac­ul­ty at the School of the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go. Her most recent book is Sur­pass­ing the Spec­ta­cle: Glob­al Trans­for­ma­tion and the Chang­ing Pol­i­tics of Art.
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