Kentridge artwork re-animates Joburg
7 August 2009
Created by world-renowned artist William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx, the latest addition to Johannesburg's public art is a commanding presence – and an important part of the regeneration of Joburg's inner city.
The Fire Walker stands tall in the inner city of South Africa's commercial capital, greeting pedestrians and motorists as they travel over the Queen Elizabeth Bridge connecting Braamfontein and the central business district.
Artist William Kentridge, in his trademark white shirt, charcoal jacket and panama hat, was present to witness the unveiling of the sculpture he created together with Gerhard Marx.
A small crowd of about 50 people buzzed around the 11-metre sculpture. Kentridge and Marx looked relaxed.
The sculpture consists of large black and white metal plates, positioned in layers. The plates are evocative of torn bits of paper. Walking around the sculpture provides a multitude of broken images, until at one point all the images come together, and The Fire Walker comes alive as a woman walking, bundled up, with a burning brazier on her head.
Local women cook mealies or "smileys" – roasted sheeps' heads – in such braziers, walking around the city and selling them to passers-by.
Kentridge said he was extremely relieved that the statue was up and looked good. It had gone from four 1m high paper drawings, to a 3-metre high marquette, and over some two months, to the striking sculpture at the entrance to the CBD.
"This is a familiar place," said Kentridge. "It is very nice to be back in it." He recounted how his grandfather, a lawyer, used to have rooms just 100 metres from the small triangular square in which the sculpture is mounted. He would visit his grandfather here, and remembers the women with braziers on their heads.
"I am happy to be part of the re-animating of the city," the artist added.
Whereas a sculpture is usually constructed in the artist's studio or yard, Kentridge said this one had to be constructed on site, with an engineer and project manager directing the operation, overseen by Marx.
"I would stand across the road, and phone them and tell them to move a piece five centimetres to the left," Marx said, smiling.
"This is really exciting to add something to the city I grew up in. It slowly fell together over a two-month period."
He explained that he had been working with Kentridge on a series of sculptures since last year. The images were for the camera – Kentridge is famous for his artistic films, as well as fine art.
Kentridge said he was looking forward to seeing the different shadows reflected on different pieces of the work, particularly when the sky was overcast, dark and purple.
The City of Joburg had approached Kentridge several times, asking whether he could do something to add to its growing body of public art, said Lael Bethlehem, the chief executive of the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), the body overseeing the commissioning and erection of the art.
"I want to thank William Kentridge for his incredibly deep engagement with the city, for this extraordinary act of creation. Thank you for this incredible act of generosity and commitment that the artists have shown," she said.
"We at the JDA see artwork as an important part of the regeneration of the city."
Bethlehem spoke about the many artworks that had been erected around the city – in Jewel City, in Braamfontein, at the Baralink Taxi Rank, at the Governor's House in Hillbrow, in Pieter Roos Park, and a road sign soccer field in Joe Slovo Drive.
"Working with artists is one of the many pleasures of working at the JDA."
She spoke of how artists were creating art out of insignificant items – forgotten tree trunks, for instance. The works were a "celebration of the street life of Joburg", with many parties contributing – residents, corporates, taxi drivers. "It is all of these elements that make up this tapestry."
Bethlehem also thanked the political leadership of the city, particularly Executive Mayor Amos Masondo, for supporting the public art programme.
That programme consists of devoting up to 1 percent of all projects undertaken, to the creation of public art. As a result, the city has blossomed with mosaic, wooden and metal sculptures, beaded sculptures, concrete creations and benches.
Rebuilding takes time
"The rebuilding of the inner city takes time," she added. "It needs the commitment and energies of a wide of range of people."
Bethlehem also spoke of the need to build an alliance, particularly with corporates in the inner city, turn old buildings around. "I invite all companies that have a commitment to the city, to come with us. The most powerful tool is the public artwork."
The triangle on which The Fire Walker has been erected has been transformed – from a car wash area for about 80 taxis to a grassy park with flower beds complementing several mature trees. A BRT station will in time be built at the southern end.
Kentridge and Marx said they were considering a similar artwork in Naples, Italy.
Source: City of Johannesburg