Cape Town - The Perceiving Freedom sunglasses installation on Sea Point Promenade, part of a World Design Capital project funded with R170 000 of ratepayers’ money, is a “ridiculous gimmick to waste public funds”, says Cosatu.
The City of Cape Town has defended the project, saying most of the artists got additional funding of almost R2 million to create their artworks, and that the installation offered a platform for creative expression that could be enjoyed by diverse communities.
The installation was sponsored by Ray-Ban, but Johan van der Merwe, acting mayoral committee member for tourism, events and economic development, confirmed that Ward 54 paid R170 000 towards the broader Art54 project, while the Department of Arts and Culture gave R30 000.
Ward allocations for this area – which includes Sea Point – usually range from about R20 000 for things like signage in parks, to R100 000 for the upgrade of the Sea Point Civic Centre.
Van der Merwe said the installation did not contravene the city’s Outdoor Signage by-law, which regulated advertising, because there was no mention of Ray-Ban on the actual artwork. He said artist Michael Elion made no mention of a commercial sponsor when he approached Art54.
“Approval was granted for his initial concept. It is only subsequent to the installation being erected that a link was made by the artist between his piece, Ray-Ban sunglasses and Nelson Mandela.”
The piece is billed as a tribute to Mandela.
Priscilla Urquhart, media manager for the Cape Town Design NPC, the implementation company for the World Design Capital, said Art54, which included a collection of work from various artists, was a recognised World Design Capital project.
The Art54 concept was mooted last year by Beverley Schäfer, who was then the councillor for Ward 54, as an opportunity for artists to display public art in the “dramatic landscape of the Atlantic Seaboard”.
The Art54 project was said to have a “limited budget” for putting up the artworks and artists were encouraged to get private funding.
Elion, the artist responsible for the stainless steel sunglasses, said he stands by his artwork despite the public backlash.
“Public art is supposed to get people talking and it’s meant to create debate. Obviously I had no intention of creating this type of debate or this level of animosity,” he said, speaking from his studio in Hope Street.
Weighing 1 200kg, the 8m x 7.5m x 2.5m steel spectacles stand on the promenade looking towards Robben Island paying tribute to the late Nelson Mandela.
Since its unveiling, Elion has been accused of using Mandela’s legacy for financial gain, among other things. In an interview with the Cape Argus on Thursday, he explained how the concept came about three years ago.
He said his original concept was a pair of generically shaped Ray-Ban glasses.
His original idea was to place the glasses on Camps Bay beach, but he had then put the project on ice after his application for funding was rejected by another eyewear brand. He then submitted a proposal to Art54 in August last year.
“It had zero to do with Nelson Mandela then… absolutely nothing,” he said. During their search for suitable sites with the Art54 team, the Sea Point Promenade was suggested.
At this point, Elion’s chief technical designer sent him a picture of pink glasses on the beach in Denmark, making him aware that there were similar installations around the world.
Elion then decided on the current location, based on the fact that the glasses won’t be obstructed by a park bench. It was a coincidence the glasses would be looking towards Robben Island.
“There was this direct access to Robben Island and I thought, ‘Wow! Isn’t that interesting’. Islands are places that we associate with paradise and freedom, but in this case it’s Robben Island, and I found that disjuncture in our perception of an island interesting,” he said.
“My mind started to take the concept further and at that point changed the name of the sculpture from Perception to Perceiving Freedom. We had to change the lenses as well as the mirrored effect wouldn’t have the same resonance on the promenade which is far more sedate and less pretentious…
“I started to think about how Mandela perceived the world and how he perceived his freedom and what it means for each of us to be truly free.”
The Nelson Mandela Foundation gave Elion their full support. “These are the custodians of Mandela’s legacy. How could I think that I’m doing something offensive or wrong when the custodians of his legacy have granted me permission?”
As a student, Elion met Mandela in the early ’90s. “(With the installation) I am trying to give a beautiful tribute and I don’t see anything wrong with me paying tribute to his mind, his magnanimity and humanity and the beauty of his spirit. Perceiving Freedom is a testament of the power of the mind.”
Elion added that he paid for the R150 000 installation. “The city paid nothing. There was a tiny budget for the whole Art54 and some projects received small amounts and I didn’t.”
Van der Merwe confirmed the artists were not paid and Elion did not receive any funding from the city. He also said Ray-Ban did not pay the city for the installation. The involvement of Ray-Ban was mentioned by the artist in his invite and at his opening; and the city had “no sanction in either”.
As this was a temporary art work, public participation was not considered for the selection of artworks, said Van der Merwe.
Cosatu’s Tony Ehrenreich said the sunglasses were a waste of public funds that could have been used to provide toilets to backyard dwellers or school facilities in needy areas. He slammed mayor Patricia de Lille for giving the World Design Capital team a budget of R40m to “sell the Cape Flats people the idea that Design Capital gimmicks are more important than food for their kids at night”.
Van der Merwe said the R40m allocated to World Design was being disbursed in tranches over the next three years. With its focus on the social impact of design, there was an “unashamed bias in the programme towards ideas, innovations and systems that have a social impact and challenge social inequalities”, he said.
The city’s designation as World Design Capital for 2014 would be the catalyst for new ideas going forward. He said there were innovative projects across the city, in areas such as Grassy Park, Princess Vlei, Langa, Delft, Hout Bay and Bellville.
But Ehrenreich said World Design Capital was piggybacking on existing projects or initiatives. “We have designs every day in our lives to survive on the Cape Flats, but we call it common sense, and we don’t have to pay some favoured whitey part of R40m to present it to us.”