Threats for Madiba glasses artist

By Kieran Legg Time of article published Nov 19, 2014

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Cape Town - He expected controversy. In many ways, he welcomed the debate. But it’s the violent threats that have unnerved Michael Elion.

The artist behind the giant steel “Madiba” glasses planted along the Sea Point Promenade said: “I keep finding myself looking over my shoulder, checking if somebody is watching me.”

For the past week he has been threatened by users on social media. The heated debate surrounding his sunglasses installation Perceiving Freedom, his tribute to Nelson Mandela, eliciting violent responses from some of the users online.

It all came to a head on Tuesday when he discovered his work had been vandalised. He said the word “murder” was scrawled on part of the frame. Smudged black letters across both lenses spelled out “we broke/your hearts”.

“This is clearly a personal attack,” he said, standing outside the Cape Town police station where he had lodged a case against his alleged aggressors.

The installation has received a mixed reaction. This is partly because while it exists as a tribute to Nelson Mandela, the lenses, made possible through a corporate sponsorship from Ray-Ban, are pointed towards Robben Island and are apparently the same style he wore while imprisoned there in 1977.

Members of the artistic community have argued it is a giant billboard for the company and a cash-in on the former president’s legacy.

One of the most vocal critics is artist John Nankin, who has led numerous debates on social media. On Tuesday, on Facebook, he all but endorsed the graffiti on Elion’s work.

“I believe that in a contested and fractured society like ours, work such as the spectacles - which is arguably insensitive to the views and feelings of large sectors of the citizenry - will always provoke this sort of reaction, which could be seen, legal or not, as an attempt to reclaim public space by excluded voices.

“It is an act of expression. Only an ostrich could see this as vandalism,” he added.

On the topic of death threats, Nankin said he hadn’t noticed any hostility towards the artist.

“(Although) I don’t know what is being said in other circles.”

Elion is taking the threats seriously. He said some of the words painted on to his work were inflammatory and closely linked to violence. “It will be dealt with in a court of law, you cannot threaten my life in public and incite others to do the same.”

He supplied police with the names of everyone who had allegedly threatened him.

He said it was made worse because he was warned that somebody would come “fight” him just days before the vandalism incident.

“Is this not the most base thing you have ever heard? This is burning crosses, this is Rwanda, this is Nazi Germany, this is propaganda coming through the airwaves and riling people up. There are respected members of the art community who were some of the first to suggest that vandalism was a route of action.”

On the website of street artists Tokolos Stencils, the authors claimed responsibility for the graffiti.

In a new blog entry they wrote: “Tokolos Stencils intervenes in white supremacist corporatist art. Myopic art leads to and is a reflection of a myopic society. But on the master’s sunglasses, there is always space to broaden our vision so that we can all see the bigger picture.”

Several pictures of the glasses were shared alongside the post.

Sea Point ward councillor Jacques Weber said the glasses were already being cleaned by Elion on Tuesday afternoon.

“The lenses have been removed and the paint should be washed off in the next three or four hours.”

The city’s acting mayco member for Tourism, Events and Economic Development, Johan van der Merwe, said: “Public art should spark debate and elicit responses from the community, but vandalism flies in the face of this framework.”

Police spokesman Captain FC van Wyk confirmed that a case of intimidation had been registered at the police station. He added that Elion had told officers he still planned to lodge an official complaint about the vandalism.

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