The latest addition to the Promenade’s public art collection, in the form of a pair of Ray-Ban wayfarers, is at odds with the subtler touch of its neighbours. A touch too much corporate, perhaps? By REBECCA HODES.
There is a well-worn anecdote about a certain Mrs Cohen, who lived in a sea-facing flat on Cape Town’s Beach Road during the 1970s. Mrs Cohen was known around Sea Point for her frequent complaints about sightings of naked men from her balcony. She lived on the sixth story of her apartment block, and her elevation meant that she was able to see the goings-on at Graaf’s Pool, a secluded enclave accessed via a path over the rocks, and a vestige for nude bathers. The water there was said to be very cold, and if one lay on the white concrete and faced the sea, the view was of chasms of ocean bounded only by the horizon.
Graaf’s Pool had an evocative inward view too, as a rendezvous point for gay men. The Pool reached the height of its popularity during the era in which the Immorality Act made gay sex illegal. Men would tan naked, take an icy plunge, and pursue other activities that scandalised Mrs Cohen, ostensibly minding her own business on her balcony.
After repeated complaints, the police eventually visited Mrs Cohen’s apartment to investigate. There they discovered that they could indeed see naked men tanning and swimming at Graaf’s Pool. But, in order to do so, they had to move the balcony furniture to its outermost corner, perch on a table, and crane their necks past the island of palm trees that divided the traffic on Beach Road. The bathers at Graaf’s Pool were not in Mrs Cohen’s direct line of sight. Instead, she had gone out of her way to view them. Rather than the men who were alleged to be exhibiting themselves, it was Mrs Cohen who was exposed as the lascivious voyeur.
This is a story, partly, about the Sea Point Promenade, about its vast potential as a public space, and as a site of encounters between different citizens. It is also a story about what is illicit and what is permissible, what is private and what is public, and about how the boundaries between these two have shifted over the course of South Africa’s history. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and it is now common to see same-sex couples being openly, and legally affectionate, while taking a stroll down the Promenade.
At the heart of a city rhapsodised for its beauty, the Promenade is Cape Town’s most successful public space. In the city’s enclaves of privilege – the suburbs of the Atlantic Sea Board, the leafy avenues of Oranjezicht and Constantia – it is easy to feel like an extra in a grandiose production: Fellini meets Fifa. And it is easier, still, for those who do not reside in these areas to be made unwelcome by the private security companies that monitor them. Cape Town’s public spaces are few, and many of its top attractions that are billed as public – the Waterfront an exemplar – are privately owned, closely surveilled, and quick to eject those regarded as undesirable by Visa-bearing visitors.
By contrast, the Sea Point Promenade is used, enjoyed and adored by multitudes. And this is why it is so important. While our politics are increasingly marred by ethnic chauvinism and rhetorical violence, a retreat from the non-racialism espoused by the ANC under Mandela, the Sea Point promenade is proof that at least some components of our national experiment in diversity and multiculturalism are working.
The Promenade is located in an area of privilege, one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in South Africa. This location is avowedly political, connected to the Cape’s history of dispossession and segregation. Its beaches and its famed public pool, the Pavilion, were reserved for ‘Whites Only’ under Apartheid’s Separate Amenities Act, and the space bears this legacy. This fact has been foregrounded, for instance, by the Social Justice Coalition, in its campaign for better sanitation in Khayelitsha. In 2011, the group organised a long queue outside the Promenade’s public toilets, to emphasise discrepancies in sanitation between affluent and poor residents of the city.
But the Promenade is not merely a display case for the political legacy of Apartheid, the past in which all of South Africa is steeped. It exemplifies not only what is fixed about the nation’s past, but what is dynamic and progressive about its present. It is a site of optimism, friendship and beauty, cluttered with the youngest and oldest of the city’s inhabitants, a favourite venue for birthday parties and picnics. It is where flat-bound pets are given a taste of the outdoors, and its benches have witnessed countless proposals, confessions, and the spilling or shoring up of secrets.
Some years back, the city decided to pilot an initiative to ‘share the space’ with cyclists. Since then, it has allowed them to ride along with pedestrians. In the approximately thousand hours that I have spent on the Promenade since the onset of this initiative, I have yet to witness a single collision. The pilot has succeeded, with those on wheels weaving, mostly sensibly, between walkers and more sedentary visitors.
For many of its visitors, the Promenade is more noun than verb – a walkway which has little to do with actually walking. In its weekly calendar, Sunday is its busy high point, its regular visitors including a range of local youngsters. They cluster near the Pavilion parking lot, around hookas and polished cars, in skinny jeans and ironic t-shirts. Similar scenes of spontaneity and affect, of casualness and posturing, play out in banlieues and boulevards the world over, but few against backdrops as breath-taking as the Promenade.
The City, the Department of Tourism and Environmental Affairs, and the local Ratepayers Association have all sought to expand public engagement with, and enjoyment of, the space. Educational boards that showcase local history and biodiversity have been erected, and are read each day by hundreds of visitors. In the board on transoceanic trade routes, the continent of Africa is in the middle of the frame, a cartographic riposte to maps of the ‘voyages of discovery’ with Europe at their centre. The focus here is, appropriately, on Africa, and the Cape’s role in global history.
Official recognition of the Promenade as one of the city’s most powerful spaces of public encounter and display is the reason for its selection as a pilot site for public art in Cape Town. A collective called Art54 was established to co-ordinate this project between the City, the Municipality and artists.
The results of this collaboration include numerous sculptures, paintings and photographic installations dispersed along the walkway, beginning with the toilets next to the first playground if you are walking away from the Pavilion towards Rocklands Beach. Under the auspices of Art54, a local painter has transformed the toilet walls – from bland, beige concrete into a gorgeous canvass: street art meets meticulous Rothko.
A kilometre or so down the Promenade, the ‘Soft Walls’ photographic exhibition provides subtle and intimate glimpses into the lives of refugees and migrants to South Africa. Its technique – to give the cameras to project participants, and to display the images that they captured – encapsulates the ideals of public, participatory art.
In between these two artworks is the ‘Rhino sculpture’ – an installation making smart use of space to challenge notions of proximity and distance, and to confront us, visually, with the disappearance and dismemberment of wild animals.
Not everyone will share my affinity with these artworks. Many who wish the Promenade to be interfered with as little as possible – left as a walkway for which the main attraction is the view – will downright loathe them. These three artworks do, however, fulfil at least some of the requirements of public art: they seek to beautify the environment (through shape and colour), and to focus attention on social issues (including species extinction and xenophobia). Most importantly, however, their objective is not private or corporate gain. These artworks exist for the social good. In this way, at the very least, they honour their privileged position in a public space.
Not so the latest addition to the Promenade’s public art collection. Disguised as a tribute to Nelson Mandela, this hulking pile of plastic and metal shaped as a pair of Ray-Ban wayfarers is corporate advertising masquerading as public art. Nobody is fooled. The artist’s claim of a link between Mandela’s vision for democracy, represented through a pair of designer sunglasses, is not just tenuous and trite, it is a violation of Mandela’s memory. Pity the researcher who had to trawl through the archive to locate an image of Mandela wearing a pair of sunglasses resembling Ray-Bans, as featured in the work’s mounted explanation. Whether the glasses that Mandela is wearing in this photograph are indeed a pair of Ray-Bans is questionable. I recently bought a pair that looks just like them from a hawker at a traffic light in downtown East London.
If the point of the work is to hone the focus on Robben Island, as the explanation claims, it could just as well have been installed outside Koeberg. As a scion of Apartheid military-industrial power, Koeberg was potentially a far greater source of indignation for struggle leaders on Robben Island than was the Mouille Point Light House. But, in reality, the aim of the ‘sculpture’ is not to hone the focus on South Africa’s history of political oppression. Instead, it is to garner as much corporate exposure for Ray-Ban through usurping one of the most popular, beautiful and widely photographed spaces in Cape Town. It is not an artwork, but an advertisement. In consenting to its installation, the City of Cape Town has made itself complicit in the corporate abuse of public land, and in the hijacking of one of our greatest national icons for private gain.
The Promenade has long been a site of challenging encounters – visual and experiential. But in offering up its hallowed lands for corporate profit, the City of Cape Town, the Municipality, and Art54 have enabled a new form of illicit engagement. There are conflicting accounts of the length of time that the Ray-Ban advert will be allowed to remain on the Promenade. My guess is that it won’t be long before the public responds in kind to its treatment by Ray-Ban: with kitsch defacement. DM
Rebecca Hodes is a historian based at the University of Cape Town.
Photo: ‘Public art’ for private profit: The Ray-Ban advert installed on the Promenade under the auspices of Art54.
The images in the ‘Soft Walls’ exhibition were created through a consultative and participatory process, but all were taken by photographer Sydelle Willow Smith.