Saturday, September 24, 2005

Another Mandela statue courts controversy

proposed Mandela statue for Trafalgar SquareToday's Guardian is the first Saturday edition that I've seen in the new 'berliner' format. While the format is growing on me it still feels as if there's less in it than before. It may be smaller in size (even if not in content) but it feels a lot heavier than it did before.

I was interested to read the controversy raging around the plans to erect a new statue of Nelson Mandela in Trafalgar Square. A very public clash is envisaged between Professor GlynnWilliams (head of the school of fine art at the Royal College of Art) appearing for Westminster Council which dislikes the proposed statue and supporters of the statute who are proponents of the prime location sought by Ken Livingstone. In Professor Williams's opinion, the proposed statue by Ian Walters, an award-winning sculptor, is 'an adequate representation but nothing more. In my opinion a sculptor of more originality and inventiveness should have been chosen, so a lasting piece of artistic heritage will be left.' He's entitled to his opinion, of course, but the fact that a work he submitted for another public commission was turned down in favour of something created by Walters has led his critics to accuse him of sour grapes.

proposed Mandela statue for Port Elizabeth This current controversy has reminded me of the controversy surrounding the huge statue (larger than the Statue of Liberty) of Mandela that was proposed for the harbour in Port Elizabeth. That statue was dismissed by critics as a 'blatant exploitation' of the Mandela legend whereas its backers said that it would act both as a monument to freedom and a major tourist attraction. Port Elizabeth is a run-down South African port city in great need of rejuvenation.

The proposed statue also had support from a lot of prominent anti-apartheid activists. Some of the criticism was justified but a lot of it came from very predictable quarters who couched it in terms that disguised the actual reason - Port Elizabeth is a bit of a back-water and the surrounding white population remains very conservative. Almost the sort of people Ken Livingstone would have had in mind when he said this of Westminster Council: 'If I had commissioned a statue of Margaret Thatcher, that would have been nodded through quickly enough.'

I didn't like the statue either - it would have been a monument to kitsch rather than a fitting tribute to Mandela.

Freedom Tower for Port ElizabethEventually, after millions were spent on investigating its feasibility, the project flopped. Thankfully, the original design got ditched at some stage, possibly as a result of the problems related to getting approval for the site. I'd like to think that it got ditched because the relevant authorities came to their collective aesthetic senses.

In January this year, a competition was launched to design a 'Freedom Tower' in the same area. The winner of a competition was announced on Mandela's 87th birthday this year. The winning design is a vast improvement on the original design and could become a great attraction for the area rather than an ugly mistake best avoided. According to its designers, the monument is to be "a tower-like habitable structure, the base depicting the start of Nelson Mandela's journey, leading up to a freedom platform representing [South Africa's] first democratic elections, where visitors can pause for a view in all directions".

I'll be following the outcome of the current controversy with great interest.


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