Cape Town unveiled a new memorial for Nelson Mandela late last week, a welcomed gesture in a city still closely associated with South Africa's Apartheid era. Sadly, the city's canonization effort has left many disappointed. Mandela was a man of great substance; this latest memorial is anything but.
To honor the late South African president, local artist Michael Elion built a giant pair of stainless steel Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses.
The enormous pair of chic sunglasses are angled to peer over the Atlantic Ocean towards Robben Island, where Mandela served his nearly three-decade prison term. Titled Perceiving Freedom, Elion's project aimed to connect memorial visitors with Mandela's prison experience. "[I]t links us to the mind of a man whose incredible capacity to transcend enduring physical hardship, with unwavering mental fortitude and dignity, transformed the consciousness of an entire country," he explained to a local newspaper. (Mandela was known for occasionally sporting a pair of aviator-style sunglasses, but not Ray-Ban-style shades. Elion included this photo in the invitation to the memorial's opening.)
I'm not buying it, and neither are many South Africans.
Where is the defiant fist of justice that a humble, aging Mandela thrust into the air as he left prison, effectively ending white-only rule in South Africa? Why not build a sculpture symbolizing his benevolent smile, captured in his popular nickname Tata—"Father" in the local Xhosa language.
Instead, Cape Town—and Mandela—got a memorial shrouded in consumerism. Elion's justification for the sculpture focuses on the clear lenses of the glasses, which, he says, "symbolize the invisible barriers and prejudices that exist in our perceptions and shape the way we view the world." That explanation is pretty opaque. If the lenses were tinted, would we no longer be moved to consider the many challenges of a multiracial society?
The glaring issue is Cape Town's attempt to filter a public memorial through a high-end commodity—a commodity that has zero connection to Nelson Mandela's core vision, or South Africa's anti-Apartheid movement. It's a nonsensical way to idolize an international hero.
That's not to say that abstract design should be excluded from memorial projects altogether. Writing in 2002, architect Robert Ivy states that "imagination trumps the literal" in many noteworthy monuments. The FDR Memorial in Washington, for example, suffers from an overly literal design, Ivy explains. But Cape Town's Mandela tribute fails not due to a dearth of creative thinking, but by incorporating a brand—which is grossly inappropriate for a memorial.
South African writer Duane Jethro notes that the unveiling ceremony coincided conveniently with the start of South Africa's summer season: A dream come true for Ray-Ban's marketing team. "Perceiving Freedom is a pathetic appropriation of commemoration as cover for a commercial promotion," Jethro wrote on Monday.
Cape Town isn't the first city to host a criticized public display of art, and it won't be the last. Here are a few other head-scratchers:
Boston's Irish Famine Memorial:
During the height of the famine in the mid-19th century, roughly 100,000 Irish immigrated to Boston as they faced starvation. If any American city is right to immortalize the tragic famine, it's Boston.
But the symbolism evoked in the Irish Famine Memorial, located in Boston's financial district, is painfully unclear. The memorial is a duality of sculptures; one depicting an affluent family, the other a group of emaciated, scantily clad bodies. Is it intended to be a before-and-after scene, with the healthy Irish family subjected to squalor because of famine? Or is it about making a starving population invisible under the complacent eyes of healthy on-lookers? Who can say?
After the memorial opened in 1998, Boston Globe art critic Christine Temine famously wrote, "[it] reduces a great tragedy to a sentimental cartoon—and a badly designed one, at that."
Bern, Switzerland's Kindlifresser (Child Eater) Fountain:
This next one is terrifying enough to ruin a romantic stroll through Bern, Switzerland's picturesque old city, which is honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Kindlifresser Fountain profiles a giant ogre gleefully devouring the head of a child. In the ogre's other hand is a bag of helpless children, his next victims. It's an all around distasteful public display, and some suggest its portrayal is anti-Semitic.
Pittsburgh's Mister Rogers Memorial:
Unfortunately, Pittsburgh's statue to Mister Rogers makes the TV icon unrecognizable. If someone hadn't thrown a red sweater on him in this picture, I would have thought I was looking at The Thing from The Fantastic Four.