Offended howls are echoing across Cape Town in the wake of the public artwork Perceiving Freedom’s unveiling and its subsequent defacement.

The debate has been a messy one, rife with emotions and plenty of personal insults. At the heart of the furore in the arts community is a pair of giant metal sunglasses that resemble Raybans on the Sea Point beachfront. One of the issues lurking behind the work by artist Michael Elion is the state of public art in South Africa.

Michael Elion

Michael Elion

The arguments and the criticisms levelled at Perceiving Freedom come down to a combination of factors – the permissions process, corporate sponsorship and artistic integrity – and it is this combination that makes the debate a convoluted one.

“All of these issues are getting mixed because they all happen to be linked by this one thing”, says Elion, speaking of his artwork. “I stand by what this artwork means. It’s a beautiful tribute.”

The structure, a pair of giant wayfarers staring at Robben Island, is partly sponsored by Ray-ban eyewear. Created by artist Michael Elion, in conjunction with the City of Cape Town as part of World Design Capital 2014, the ‘Perceiving Freedom’ installation is said to be a tribute to Mandela. A photograph of Mandela wearing similarly shaped glasses is positioned in the accompanying inscription.

Recently, in the early hours of the morning the guerrilla graffiti group, Tokolos-stencils, reportedly spray painted the sunglasses with slogans “Remember Marikana” and “We Broke Your Hearts”.

Jill Williams, Communications Manager at the African Arts Institute (AFAI), told The Journalist:

“There are so many things that people could be doing with art in a public space, and things with such significance…it’s sad that there is so little [government funding], and that funding goes to a select few. Public art here is so far removed from what’s happening at the roots…there are so many projects that people are trying to get [funding for] and can’t… It’s disappointing and frustrating.”

Asked specifically about the Elion sculpture, she responded:

“You can say what you want regarding conceptual motivation, but at end of the day, it’s funded by a sponsor that is branding itself, so is that really public art?”

She said spaces within the city used for public art needed to have an independent board of artists themselves responsible for making decisions with regards to what should and should not be done in these spaces. Williams added:

“The powers that be who approve public art in strategic places in and around our city need to be voted into their positions by the artists themselves and when I say artists themselves I don’t just mean those who studied it at a tertiary institution… I’d also love to see the hidden creatives lurking in over-looked disadvantaged communities exercise their rights to create powerful pieces, sparking off transformative and necessary conversations.”

The AFAI had planned to host a forum recently that required the Cape Town municipal bosses to be present and to engage on the issues – what and how the city funds in the arts, culture and heritage space. But the city indicated that they could not participate as their policy was still in draft form. AFAI then postponed the forum to early 2015. Meanwhile a petition asking for the Elion sculpture to be removed is doing the rounds and is causing a buzz on social networks.

Renowned arts activist and Executive Director of the AFAI, Mike van Graan, recently wrote a column for Weekend Argus on the whole saga. He stated:

“The unintended ironies of public art as a comment on the state of our democracy and its freedoms are found even within public art itself, as in the “Ray-Ban Spectacle” public art piece. By now, everyone knows about the sculpture on the Sea Point Promenade, opportunistically labelled “Perceiving Freedom” and drawing a highly imaginative and obtuse link between the sculpture and Nelson Mandela.

“The work has been defaced by Tokolos Stencils, a group of street artists, who have spray-painted various messages on the sculpture, thereby exercising their right to freedom of expression on a work that supposedly, according to the artist, Michael Elion, is “meant to unite people”. At least some of the venom spewed in the direction of Elion has to do not with his right to freedom of creative expression as affirmed in the Constitution, but his abuse of this right in giving advertising space to his primary sponsor in a public space:

The Tokolos collective who claims responsibility for defacing Elion’s contested artwork said: “Our public spaces are being privatised and defaced by corporate interests – is that not vandalism of the highest order?”

Ismail Mahomed, Chief Executive of the SA National Arts Festival, comments on Facebook:

“I have problems with the first part of the petition which calls on government bureaucrats to remove the artwork. Calling on government bureaucrats to remove any kind of artwork once it is been exhibited amounts to censorship no matter what the reason may be for such a callback. I would prefer to see the artwork become a canvass for the kind of work done on it by Tokolosh Stencils so that what remains of this huge wank of a sculpture becomes a bigger and more powerful form of community and artist protest. Perhaps, even a gradual slicing of the artwork by metal recyclers will be a wonderful endorsement that the current work is flawed both aesthetically and philosophically.”

The crux of the matter is the fact that Cape Town is popularly recognised as the ‘creative hub’ of the country, but our public art culture is embarrassingly poor. In 2014, for a city of over three million people, “we don’t have a public arts policy in place, and that shows a lack of political will in our city, or a lack of respect for art,” explains Jonathan Garnham, chairperson of the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA).

Artist and curator, Niel Nieuwoudt agrees that local government “should work alongside arts professionals or art consultants to find capable artists that work site specifically, taking the history and the local communities into consideration”.

Johannesburg has a working model, Trinity Sessions, which was founded in the early 90s and set up a public art policy in the city, working closely with the Johannesburg Developmental Agency. Art54 is the closest thing that Cape Town has, but it lacks governmental support and funding.

The fact that large artworks in Cape Town exist at all in public spaces is a feat, and credit should go to programmes like Art54 for providing the initiative. Public art is largely rare in Cape Town. Art is something that usually happens within galleries, acceptable to a specific group of people in a privatised environment. Public art projects and initiatives like Art54 are few and lack significant political sponsorship. The problem doesn’t lie with corporate sponsorship of the arts. The problem lies in how it’s done. When an artwork can be mistaken for direct advertising, things become problematic.

Michael Elion may be some or none of the things that he’s been accused of, and his sculpture may be good or bad. But that’s not the important argument here. It’s about public arts policy and the lack of political will in Cape Town. Now that it’s topical, let’s put our opinion to use, and help refine the public arts policy for the City of Cape Town.

Let’s not allow this furore to signal the death of public art in the city. A possible negative spinoff is that people are going to think twice before applying or allowing for public art, and that will benefit no-one. “In the long run, it’s good that this debate has come up, because people should think about what goes into public spaces,” says Garnham. “In the medium term, there have been damaging side effects, but let’s hope it’s something that will ultimately be positive”.

Excerpts form the Facebook debate