Stacey Vorster – Inner City Safaris & Wild Public Art

Nr. 18    Juni 2011 TRANS: Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften

Section | Sektion: Johannesburg in Literature

Inner City Safaris & Wild Public Art

Stacey Vorster (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa) [BIO]


 Konferenzdokumentation |  Conference publication


Herman Wald’s ‚Leaping Impala‘ was installed in Ernest Oppenheimer Park in 1960. Eighteen animals in full flight, a sleigh-ride arc of hoof and horn twenty metres long, a ton and a half of venison in bronze […] Johannesburg has an abundance of wildlife, and the poachers have taken full advantage of the open season.They’ve bagged a bronze steenbok from Wits University; a horse from outside the library in Sandton (first docking the beast, to see if anyone would mind, and then hacking off its head like Mafiosi); a pair of eagles nesting near the Stock Exchange; and another steenbok in the Botanical Gardens at Emmarentia. This little buck, which had been donated to the Gardens by the sculptor Ernest Ullman in 1975, was taken in 1998. The head turned up afterwards in a scrapyard and was returned to the scene of the slaughter, where it was mounted on a conical pedestal like a trophy, along with a plaque explaining the circumstances of its loss and recovery. But before long the head was stolen for a second time and now the pedestal is empty […] Of course, urban poachers are not just hungry for horseflesh: any old iron will do (Vladislavić,2006:136).


While describing the profusion of public art in Johannesburg that manifests in some or other form of animal iconography, local author Ivan Vladislavić does more than just romantically describe the acts of vandalism that plague the city. He invokesa metaphor of hunting in a manner that calls up times (hopefully) gone by. He conjures upan image of thedaring and courageous African explorer, the shotgun-slinging, pith-helmeted English gentleman, one leg mounted triumphantlyupon his kill. He imagines the mysterious,wild savage, moving swiftly, silently through the dark night, eyes aglow, prepared to pounce at any sign of dinner.This is Vladislavić’s African metropolis, an untamedjungle of space in which bare survival is paramount. And take note, this is not, as may be expected, the age of the colony, the coloniser, the colonised, far from it; Vladislavić marks his open season,decades later, in the 1990s.

While, as street-wise South African’s we may giggle with delight at the pure naivety of manyuninitiated tourists(who all too often assume we have wild animals stalking around outside their hotels) we are certainly not without our fair share of lions, elephants and antelopes in aesthetically imagining our city, albeit that they are immobilised in stone and metal. Take your binoculars along if you plan to make a trip through the inner city,because as you drive through the business hub of South Africayoumay spot even more wildlife than you would on any drive through the Kruger National Park. Johannesburg, Africa’s World Class City, its economic hub, its largest urban centre, has ironically turned into a game drive of sorts.

In light of this I feel it is necessaryto discuss the abundance of wildlife imagery as a tactic of the city to aesthetically identify itself. My sense is that the use of animals does exactly what Vladislavić’s excerpt brings into sharp focus; an aesthetic imaginary that relies on outdated and somewhat empty mythologies of Africa as the “dark continent” filled with wild beasts and savage natives. Through exploring local artist Clive van den Berg’s 2007 commission, Eland, as a primary example of wildlife themed imagery in public art, I hope to unravel these mythologiesand reveal their emptiness, their misallocation, their formulaic and inappropriate application.

The hunting metaphor, then, evokes two, somewhat polarised kinds of publics in relation topublic art as wildlife.(1) On the one hand there is the savage poacher, slaughtering any beast worth its venison in bronze, as Vladislavić would have it, to make his bread and butter; the ever-flexible, opportunistic, city dweller, moving at night, disguised by darkness, or under guise of officiality, with blowtorch and hacksaw in hand. On the other side of the spectrum, the image of taxidermic trophy-heads evokes the khaki-outfitted Dr. Livingstone, I presume? The noble tamer of dark Africaor, indeed,the vehicle-cocooned (doors locked and windows cracked open only slightly) commuter on his or her way to the banking district for a day’s work.(2)

The irony of this situation seems to relysomewhat on its timing – what Vladislavić callsopen season. In the heydays of Johannesburg’s early twentieth century gold rush, pre-post-colonialism and the attitudes that accompany the era, this type ofaesthetic imaginary may have been expected. And while we may not necessarily read the way in which these artworks have been handled, or slaughtered as it may be, as indicative of a negative reaction to their content, as Vladislavić points out “any old iron,” or even copper for that matter, “will do” (2006:136), it is problematic that this way of representing our urban space is what is invoked when the city brands itself as “A World Class African City.” Is Johannesburg’s Africanness still located in a mythologized past of wild animals, savages and gentrified missionary-explorers? It certainly seems so, since public art, still, seems to be largely comprised of animal iconography a whole decade after Vladislavić’sopen season – the only change in policy has been to encourage vandal-resistant materials; from bronze antelope to concrete ones.

Additionally the more contemporary examples of public art as wildlife, like van den Berg’sseven and a half metre tall,concrete depiction of an antelope, comprised of two silhouettes joined by large metal tubes giving a three-dimensional effect, simply entitledEland of 2007,(3) have been praised as culturally inclusive by art historians and public officials fortheir racial-inclusivity and embrace of a past dislocated from recent histories,as opposed to what art historian Cynthia Kros calls “what has become the conventional founding myth based on an abridged version of the ANC-led liberation struggle” (2008:170). It is in this search for iconography that does not favour or offend one group of people over another that artists seem to have found the poetic wild beast, which relies on an assumed link between each and every South African and theirinner hawk, monkey, antelope or (fill in your chosen spirit animal here).In a country where difference is marked by something as basic as skin colour, it does pose a problem to make art that represents any human figure –even a seemingly neutral one will inevitably be racially referential – but by avoiding this problem it seems that the cultural producers have made the city of Johannesburg into a concrete jungle, aconcrete zoo.(4)

The assumption that animals are a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to representational issues is taken even further when the animals represented are constructed and marketed as iconic, heroic beings thatare sentimentalised in the strongest, and strangest, of ways.Eland, for instance, seems to have been constructed as well as received as a nostalgic call to a dislocated past, as is evident in the artist’s statement when he calls the artwork slightly forlorn and majestic, as if it weeps rusty tears at the spoils of urbanity that it watches over. Van den Berg, then,goes on to appeal to a wishy-washy idea of the “interconnectedness of environmental, cultural and spiritual destinies,” which I can only assume implies a sentimentality for the pre-urban Johannesburg (and by extension Africa) as well as a universally shared spirituality (quoted in Hobbs et al, 2007:np). While this idea is perhaps particularly romantic when appealing to the great “human tribe,” we-are-all-brothers and all that spiritual stuff, it also seems to ride on an assumption that Africa can (only) be represented by the very imagery that we are so quick to critique when we feel Western eyes primitivising us as the ‘dark continent.’Indeed, Kros refers to the spiritual potency of Eland with reference to the reverence with which ancient South African hunter gatherers, or San Bushmen, held this particular animal, saying that Johannesburg has only the faintest traces of this group of people (ibid.). This faint trace can be interpreted in two ways. On one hand it could be yet another lament on the disappearance or extermination of the San people (whichever word suits your view on the subject).(5) Or, on the other hand, the faintest trace could refer to the lack of any trace in the first place – Johannesburg is not exactly known for its profusion of rock art (unless you count the Origins centre in Wits University). Either way van den Berg as well as authors writing aboutEland mobilise some vague and thoroughly disengaged notion of San mythology to give the artwork some sort of potency, or,if we are to be candid, symbolic capital.(6)Journalist, Louise Gaigher, reaffirms this when she notes, tongue firmly placed in cheek, that “the eland is a powerful symbol and presents many motorists and pedestrians with their daily dose of San spirituality” (2008:36).

A similar thing happens with Gerhard and Maya Marx’s Paper Pigeons, 2009, installed in Ferreirasdorp in the southwest of the Johannesburg CBD. The steel sculptures depict three large-scale origami-like pigeons, perched upon a traffic island, which has come to be known as pigeon square in reference to the thousands of pigeons that perch there on a daily basis. The angular aesthetic of the sculpture, a reference to the Eastern art of paper folding, origami, is a throwback to the supposed Chinese heritage of the site, but primarily the artwork is sold as an iconic representation of the city bird,complete with rows of small rods emerging from the sculpture on which the actual pigeons roost. The iconic nature of the pigeon is what puzzles me most in this example, often imagined as winged rats; pigeons are mostly associated with dirt and disease and can hardly compete with the majesty of the big five.

What Eland, Impala Stampede,Paper Pigeons, the Sandton horse and stock exchange eagles are indicative of is, perhaps, that Johannesburg has very little to work with in terms of its own indigenous imagery or claim tofame (perhaps this could be argued for most urban centres as we all dive head first into cosmopolitan globalisation). Historian, Charles van Onselen, describes the city as“a concrete encrustation on a set of rocky ridges,” without “fertile soil, striking natural vegetation, a lake, a mountain, a valley, a river or even an attractive perennial stream.” “It lacks,” he says, “the landscape of affection or mystery easily appropriated by myth-makers and nation-builders” (quoted in Nuttall & Mbembe, 2008:11). While van Onselen fails to recognise the urban features of the city before the natural ones, we must still admit that Johannesburg’s aesthetic identity is based largely on the mine-dumps-as-mountains approach. The city’s status as the largest man-made forest in the world is testament to this artificiality– making the notion of indigenous trees a kind of inside joke (ibid:18). Hence it may not be so surprising that its native visual producers, artists and writers, and perhaps most importantly funding agents are searching for some sort of unique branding that can affect the landscape and its viewers in a lasting and powerful way (we must of course remember that animals are exclusive to the African country… ahem… continent).What Elandet al are evocative of, then, is a kind of mobilisation of mythology (albeit a somewhat unbelievable one), in theiraddition to public space and hencepublic and or popular culture.

While not all Johannesburg public art uses animal iconography, many surely play on the same sentimentality, nostalgia and mythology as Eland. William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx’s Firewalker, made in 2009, two years after Eland,which is installed on the southern most end of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge in Braamfontein, is one instance of this. The sculpture is an abstracted, monochromatic, depiction of a woman selling cooked mielies from a makeshift stove (called a brazier) that she carries upon her head as she walks through the streets. While this figure could easily be interpreted as a trope of modernity or even postmodernity, insofar as she exists in the liminality of a society founded in capitalism, Marx and Kentridge, and subsequent journalists, completely undermine any urban aspectof the figure by entitling her Firewalker. This bizarre choice of title may have been defendable if it at the very least translated into any common description of a mielie-saleswoman (I had to check each of our eleven official languages). But rather, especially for the ignorant and somewhat easily-fooled urban safari public, the title evokes the ritual of fire-walking (admitted: this is much more glam than mielie-saleswoman), a ritualised practice where people walk barefoot over hot coals as a test of their faith. This custom is enacted by a variety of cultures across the globe, including Greek villagers in tribute to Saint Constantine (Roach, 2005:np) – however there is absolutely no evidence that Johannesburg-based mielie-saleswoman walk over their coals before they cook with them. I would bet that this slip of words was in no way unintended; without the mythology that is constructed around the act of fire-walking and the implicit ideas around faith, sacrifice and ritual, this sculpture would have far less of the symbolic capital that it seems to hold (even if it does have the name Kentridge attached to it); it has been glibly labelled Johannesburg’s Statue of Liberty, even though its size is less than a  fourth of the lady in green: “New York has its 46m tall Statue of Liberty; and now Joburg is soon to get its own Statue of Liberty, in the form of a 10m tall woman walking with a burning brazier on her head” (Davie, 2009:np).

Again, Vladislavić seems to have some insight to offer to this issue when he recalls a plaque accompanying the retrieval of the little bronze buck’s chopped-off head explaining “its loss and recovery” (2006:136). It is this very idea of loss and recoverythat seems to be enacted in Johannesburg’s public art and greater aesthetic imaginary. Eland for instance is appealed to by the artist as placing “a large representation of an eland on a corner where it has long since disappeared” (and possibly never was in the first place)(van den Berg quoted in Hobbs, 2007:np).

While, as Jacques Derrida may have it, this commemoration is a necessary part of forgetting, it also ensures that in imagining the city we will always imagine ourselves retrospectively, we will alwaysbe looking back, almost obsessively to a pre-urban South Africa. Derrida’s premise is an archival one – that adding something to the archive is simultaneously a way of marking the importance of the record and in that way adding it to collective memory but also a way of allowing oneself to forget insofar as it is a repository of meaning (Harris, 2002:164). And of course the word monument comes from the Latin monere: to remind (Johnson in Reynolds, 1996:10).(7)This loss and recovery seems also to be a ritualised act, one that Vladislavić points to as he relives the slaughter of these public artworks; it is not simply in memorialising a lost group of animals, people, or indeed way of life but also the reminder that this is life’s promise: death. In this way the public artwork, like the archive, like the photograph, is an act of memento mori; a constant reminder of our own impending demise. Eland is a corpse that bleeds rust from its “forlorn eyes” – wildlife artworks have, in this sense, a taxidermic quality that is both physical, in their corpse-like appearance as well as spiritual in the sense that they become totems.Colin Richards engages with South African artists’ fascination with animals in his article Artless Beasts: “In our live and living interactions and entanglements with animals we double and mirror ourselves , and in doing so deal with death and suffering as we know it” (2007:55). In this way the animal can come to represent loss with reference to a group of people, be it specific or more general. This seems to be taking place in the imagining ofEland, the species of animal has not been completely lost but the cultural heritage of the San people that gives the antelope such stature, has.

In their book entitled Johannesburg: the ElusiveMetropolis, 2008,Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe highlight what they call the spectral quality of African city life “that is, its constant interplay between what is “visible” and what is “invisible,” between appearance and disappearance” (2008:6). And again: “Linked to this is the ceaseless birth, destruction, and reconstruction of forms, the aim of which is, […] to testify to the presentness of the past while making way for the ‘new’” (2008:17).In the post-trauma of the end of apartheid, this type of literature is testament to how South Africa’s world-class city seems to be re-enacting the death and destruction of its people and landscape through the enactment of urbanisation as the loss of what we may call its pre-urban wildness, its untainted purity to use a wholly primitivised concept. In this way, the city’s promoters do not need to deal directly with the ugly past of apartheid but still seem to enact and re-enact this kind of trauma through public art.

However, this is not to say that the rest of the country has escaped this trend. Tourism promoters package the country as the home of the big five more than any other species (especially the human kind), making it a little more understandable that foreigners are surprised that the country is a little more advanced than the village from the Jungle Book. Our next best attraction is the ever-popular Sun City, the hotel and casino located near Rustenburg, whose fake stone floors quake on half-hourly intervals as roaring lions are played through speakers-made-to-look-like-rocks. Sun City is marketed as the heart of the bushveld (malaria free of course); having an African rhythm all of its own according to its website in which the Valley of the Waves is strategically photographed to look like a real beach. In this hyper-real, five-star African experience the mythology of wild Africa is mobilised to the extreme; from the fake-looking statues of animals to the constant signs reminding visitors that the baboons and monkeys are very dangerous and could attack at any moment.  The nearby Pilanesberg Game Reserve, where they actually keep some real animals, however, is hardly marketed in the same way: while there is still a general do-not-leave-the-vehicle rule, visitors are simply encouraged to not feed the monkeys as they have become pests within campsites.

In this sense it seems that there is a feeling of danger that goes hand-in-hand with wild Africa, a concept that is also intrinsically linked to the urban experience of Johannesburg’s wildlife. Like in real game reserves, Johannesburg’s upper class explorers of the wild inner city are encouraged not to leave the comfort of their BMW X5s perchance they get eaten (or at the very least mugged) by a wild savage. This sense of danger and exploration does just as much for the mythology of the artworks as their supposed inherent spirituality, making the viewing of the works precious, even rare, for one kind of public moving in relation to them, in the same way that spotting an animal on a safari may be.

That mythology is mobilised by Eland, be itsingular or multiple, is on one level interesting insofar as it bespeaks of the kind of public art South Africa seems to employ – public art as monuments or memorials, hardly the postmodern, self-reflexive and parodying public art that exists in cosmopolitan centres of the West. However, it seems that this mythology and memorial is located in a kind of empty promise, a disguised, constructed and artificial symbol, if any. While there is some evidence that the eland was a potent symbol for some San communities, especially through its repeated use in rock paintings, this evidence is also very sparse and is interpreted in ways that is often conflicting – in some cases the eland is described as a messenger that brings news of death, in others the animal is linked to the potency summoned by shamans entering trance dances (Solomon, 1997:np).  It seems that van den Berg, et al, is employing this mythology only insofar as it is linked to some sort of magical, spiritual enchantment that he dances around actually pinning down.

As Richards notes, it seems that often the symbolic capital of a particular animal rests in its relationship to some human quality.Perhaps this is the way in which the Ferreirasdorp pigeons are made into icons, through their association with homing pigeons they give meaning to the nearby family courts and are linked to the loyalty associated with the practice:

The animal/ human relationship is, however, one fated to be in some sense narcissistic, even solipsistic. We are animals ourselves; but we also project our human doings and beings readily onto other species. We sometimes call this anthropomorphism, and it often takes on a magical, enchanted quality when in operation (2007:58).

It is this very magic that is being milked in cases like Eland, albeit an empty magic in many senses. Firewalkertoo, seems to employ the same emptiness of reference. Additionally the sculpture as an abstracted form enhances the confusion between what is actually represented and what the title implies. At some stages as one passes the artwork it may very well look like a mysterious fire-walker rather than a plain-old mielie-saleswoman.

There are, however, examples of wildlife public art that are in no way universal and vague symbols – case in point the Andries Botha elephant saga, which continues to develop in Durban. The artist, who has been placing sculptures of elephants all over the world,was commissioned by the city of Durban to install a public artwork for the Soccer World Cup. However, after the three elephants were partially installed, the local ANC-led government put a stop to the installation of the artwork as three elephants have been used to symbolise the IFP – one of the ANC’s rival political parties. Hence, it is evident that while Kros may argue that animals are in some sense culturally inclusive, they are also often loaded with embedded symbolism for particular publics as well as implications that are often unexplored.

The game drive through the urban jungle seems to also evoke a relationship between artworks in terms of spatial connections. It seems to be set up in such a way that all the blockbuster sites of the city can be seen by travelling only a few kilometres into the actual city. There is an interesting spatial relationship between Eland, the Nelson Mandela Bridge and Firewalker, all of which are within metres of each other. Each one marks a boundary or the crossing of a boundary in a way that is a constant reminder of how the city of Johannesburg is physically and perhaps also metaphorically divided. By virtue of being part of the African continent, added to by our history fraught with division and segregation, our liminal quality is emphasised.

As David Bunn observes of contemporary public artworks, the challenges facing organisations like the Trinity Session (the production company behind most Johannesburg public artwork) is to create artworks that are not merely “sentinel public sculptures, or aestheticized boundary markers that define corporate precincts” (in Nuttall & Mbemebe, 2008:161).Published only a year after Eland’s installation, Bunn names no specific artworks but it seems clear that he may very well be referring to the sculpture which is a marker for the suburb of Braamfontein and the animalcertainly gazes over the flow of traffic that passes it on a daily basis.Paper Pigeons function in the same way – they are marketed as the welcome point for commuters entering the city from the west.

What this is evident of is that, whether the agents behind Johannesburg’s public art know it or not, there seems to be a formula for making successful artworks – one that is further mobilised with each new blockbuster artwork added to the cityscape. One tactic is the use of wildlife iconography that appeals to some or other African mythology – it does not seem to matter which. Another is a spatial positioning that marks boundaries and the crossing of these boundaries. While in some senses we can appreciate these moves, as Kros does, for their assumed political correctness in terms of calling fair and free publics into being, it also seems that they mobilise a particular type of history that is hardly neutral. As Donald Martin Reynolds observes: monuments (and by extension public art) are “embodiments and symbols of our traditions and values” (1996:59). They “objectify the truths on which our cultural heritage is based” (1996:61). It is in this sense that the real danger of Johannesburg as a game drive is revealed – we are building and naturalising a city and by extension a history of empty symbols and vague mythologies that are in many cases not our own.



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1 I am using a notion of publics, here, as conceived by Michael Warner in his text Publics and Counterpublics, 2002. He defines a public as a text-based body of people that are otherwise unrelated. In this sense a movie, an artwork, a book or the like calls into being a type of entity that is more loosely connected than an audience but nonetheless is linked by the address of this text. This conception is useful in that it denaturalises the (mis)conception of the general public who are all-encompassing and without agency. Warner’s supposition then is that there is not simply the public but many publics and sub-publics. 2 These are two extreme cases of publics: I admit that there is of course some middle ground between them, where people may interact with the artworks in different ways. 3 Born out of a competition between five Johannesburg-based, artists in October 2006, Eland was chosen out of four other proposals and was to be installed in Braamfontein, a suburb on the periphery of the Johannesburg central business district. The Braamfontein Gateway Project – an attempt to create an iconic landmark to be associated with Braamfontein as well as to gentrify the space through urban regeneration – was initiated by the Braamfontein Improvement District in collaboration with the Johannesburg Development Agency and was managed by local arts production company The Trinity Session. The artwork was to be guided by the Braamfontein Art Committee, a group of organisations and stakeholders including the City’s Department of Arts, Culture and Heritage Services; the Johannesburg Art Gallery; the Wits School of Arts; and paper company Sappi (Kgoweni, 2007:np). Elandhas been described as the “biggest single public art object since 1994” perhaps referring to the overgrown sculpture of Nelson Mandela, made in 1994, in Sandton city both in physical size but also in budget and symbolic capital – Eland in this sense is being referred to as a blockbuster in relation to Johannesburg public art (Mafu, 2007:np). 4 According to Eric Itzken, the Director of Immovable Heritage for the city of Johannesburg, many political figures were uninspired by this artwork and would have preferred the huge budget of around seven-hundred-and-sixty-thousand Rand to be spent on exactly the kind of monument that van den Berg claims to want to avoid (2010:np). In an article on Johannesburg heritage, Kros calls Eland: a striking example of this new metaphysical bent… clearly meant to call up a history that precedes the formation of the ANC by several centuries (2008:170). 5 I say yet another lament because there seems to be a somewhat absurd fascination with this group of people, as is evident in the many publications on the subject, which often spend more time romanticising them and their cultural practices than anything else. (Perhaps this is an argument for another time.) 6 Symbolic capital is a term coined by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his 1986 publication The Forms of Capital. Put simply, the term denotes the notions, conceptions, associations and the like that give a text the ability to successfully call a public into being. 7 There is, admittedly, a difference between public artworks and monuments but I feel the South African context allows for much more of a blur between the two when compared to international trends. Perhaps our artists have less exposure within the engaging publics and in that sense much of our public art relies on a monumentalising factor for symbolic capital. I will revisit this later in the text.


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Stacey Vorster: Inner City Safaris & Wild Public Art –
In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 18/2011.

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