In a week in which the country and the world has held its breath while Nelson Mandela fights a lung infection in a Pretoria hospital, he stands tall and powerful on an inner city block. Nelson Mandela as a public figure is returned to Johannesburg, and specifically to the places he inhabited in the 1950s. Marco Cianfanelli’s newly unveiled sculpture of Mandela, “Shadowing Boxing” towers above Fox Street, Ferreirasdorp. Placed between Chancellor House and the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court this must have been a path that a young Mandela walked many times.
Chancellor House, which has been recently renovated, was once Mandela and Tambo Attorneys, the first black law practice in Johannesburg. Today it houses a museum recording that history, the contents of which are unusually displayed in the windows for passersby to view. One of the exhibits is a photograph of Nelson Mandela, the boxer, sparring with Jerry Moloi on the rooftop of the South African Associated Newspapers Building in downtown Johannesburg. It was this image captured by Drum photographer Bob Gosani in 1952 that inspired Cianfanelli’s Shadow Boxing.
“The idea of boxing is a great metaphor to speak of the legal system,” says Cianfanelli. Writing about boxing, Mandela said: “I did not enjoy the violence of boxing so much as the science of it. I was intrigued by how one moved one’s body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy both to attack and retreat, how one paced oneself over a match.” Mandela was to spend much time in court, both as an attorney and as the accused, and in the boxer’s stance, the sculpture conveys both the defensive power and the possibility of a powerful strike.
Measuring close to six metres, Mandela stands atop a concrete plinth with his words etched across it. “In the ring, rank, age, colour, and wealth are irrelevant”. The sculpture is made up of layers of painted metal sheets, the different pieces making shadows on the figure and creating a 3-D effect. The use of colour appears to be a departure from many of Cianfanelli’s earlier works, but he says: “As an art student I majored in painting. Colour is not something I don’t do, there just hasn’t been much time to explore using paint.” He says the photograph suggested his approach. “The sculpture is a tribute to a black and white gray scale photo. I decided to add red, to make it more pronounced and also to link to the colour used on Chancellor House.”
With its graphical treatment and bold shades the sculpture calls to mind the famous Barack Obama poster image created by artist Shepard Fairey for the 2008 presidential campaign. Cianfanelli says: “It’s a bit of a pop play on Warhol’s gun slinging Elvis Presley. It puts it in the vein of a populist icon”.
This is Cianfanelli’s second Mandela work and they couldn’t be more different. The first is made up of a series of 50 steel columns that viewed collectively create a portrait of Mandela. That piece was conceptualised with Jeremy Rose of Mashabane Rose Architects and is placed at the site in Howick, Kwazulu Natal where police captured Mandela after he had spent months on the run. I ask him what it’s like to work on Mandela. He says: “I never imagined I would be doing sculptures of him. It’s just pure coincidence. There are so many images of him, and so many poor sculptures.” He says that one can’t help but be aware of “the issues of trading on someone’s name and buying into a legacy that exists.”
But the sculpture also commemorates the life and work of Bob Gosani and there’s something delightful about Cianfanelli having worked “with” Gosani to create it. It is truly a “public” artwork, inspiring both awe and response. I have watched as passersby, whether adult or children, stop to proudly pose for photos as boxers beneath it, or climb the plinth to strike the pose.
“The uniqueness of the piece – the character of the boxer rather than the political figure, which was also part of his persona – has made me very proud”, says Cianfanelli. Describing his work, Cianfanelli has written: “I am interested in making things that prompt a sense of the complexity of the present”. The idea that Mandela’s shadow will forever fall across Fox Street as an eternal reminder of the fight for justice, and the artwork’s accessibility to the people of the city adds another layer of meaning to a complex legacy that South Africans will spend forever trying to unravel.
* This article was first published in the Mail&Guardian 14/06/2013