About a week ago a Mandela tribute sculpture was unveiled: stainless steel Ray Ban Wayfarer glasses titled “Perceiving Freedom”.
A few days after that, these massive glasses ignited the grass it lies on because physics did its thing of refracting light through the lens. Quite honestly, it should have just burnt down.
The sculpture is strategically positioned on the Sea Point promenade to have a direct view to Robben Island, where Mandela spent most of his 27 year imprisonment. The sculpture was inspired by a picture of Mandela wearing the famous frames, and intends to inspire South Africans to have a clear view on freedom as Mandela did. This sculpture not only fails to achieve this intended purpose, but trivialises what Mandela’s message.
In Tom Eaton’s post for TimesLIVE, he provides a much needed context on the inspiration photo. This photo was taken on Mandela’s 13th year of imprisonment, when South African journalists were on a tour of the prison. Mandela was instructed to garden, given a spade and these Ray Ban shades, but instead Mandela stood, leaning on the spade. As Eaton points out, the sculpture fails to take into account the defiance of the inspiration picture. From Mandela’s disdain and defiance, what we have is a passive, light hearted sculpture that claims resemblance to Mandela but in fact has none.
What doesn’t sit right with me is how this sculpture commercialises Mandela, thereby trivialises his concerns. The sculpture buys into the one-track perspective of Mandela who only “saw” freedom, ignoring how he also called for freedom to be active pursued. The sculpture passively lies on the grass, and does not call for South Africans to attain freedom in a practical manner, which is something we desperately need in this time of our democracy.
This sculpture sells out Mandela, the man and what he stood for, in exchange for a corporate stamp. All that one can gather from this sculpture is how desperately Ray Ban just wanted large-glasses-on-the-Promenade, prepared to use Mandela’s name to (poorly) legitimise the otherwise inane sculpture as “deep”, “meaningful” and necessary.
This sculpture is just a poorly masked attempt at a large Ray Ban advertisement. If Ray Ban really wanted this massive sculpture, this pointless project would have been better if framed (pun intended) as a tongue-in-cheek reference to hipsters, positioned in Cape Town because of the city being perceived as “hipsterlicious”. Every hipster needs the Wayfarer frames as a tool of trade, making this sculpture fun and light hearted (in a good way); Ray Ban paying homage to the group of youths that made Wayfarers cool again. Alas, this is not how the work intends to be consumed.
However, in a turn of events, this pointless project has been given purpose by being defaced in the name of remembering the Marikana massacre. The culprit is Tokolos Stencils, a collective of anonymous graffiti artist, identified through their stencil tag of the man wrapped in a green blanket, taken from footage of Marikana.
The glasses were defaced [photo] by the collective’s Marikana green man tag stencilled in the centre of the glasses’ lenses, captioned with “Remember Marikana”. Across the bottom of the two lenses reads “We broke your hearts” — a message of chilling truth to what we’ve done (or lack thereof) regarding Marikana. We, South Africans, broke the hearts of the miners who were shot in the back for our failure in to achieve economic freedom. We broke Mandela’s heart in allowing our country to escalate to this massacre, taking a few steps backwards in achieving his envisioned freedom.
In being graffiti’d, the sculpture finally does what it needed to do: wake up South Africans and point them to a cause that aligns with practical freedom, not just the perceptive kind. Justice for the Markiana miners lies at the core of Mandela’s freedom, both physical and economical.
The sculpture has gone from perceiving nothing to forcing us to see our failure in achieving freedom. To whoever took out their spray cans, thank you: you’ve turned this sculpture around.