Opinionista Marelise Van Der Merwe 3 March 2017

The Other News Round-Up: Restoration Station

In a weekly column, Daily Maverick takes a look at some of the stranger happenings from South Africa and further afield. This week: restorations, botched and beautiful.

It’s said the path to Hell is paved with good intentions, and perhaps never more so than when well-meaning people take it upon themselves to fix what they aren’t qualified to tackle. Botched home remedies, failed citizen arrests or my personal favourite – would-be pastry chefs – often remind us that expert jobs are best left to experts.

This week, news broke that two rare busts rescued from the Islamic State group in the ancient city of Palmyra and restored in Italy have been returned to Syria. Some 400 artefacts made it safely(ish) out of Palmyra, following the city’s seizure in 2016. The group destroyed many of Palmyra’s monuments, temples and irreplaceable archaeological relics.

The busts – two rare funeral reliefs dating back to the second and third centuries respectively – have been part of a quest for preservation worthy of Indiana Jones. ISIS was driven out of Palmyra a year ago, but recaptured the town in December. The busts, which had been badly damaged with what appeared to be hammers or similar weapons, miraculously made it out of Palmyra without being stolen. They were carefully restored in Italy by a team of five specialists, including one Antonio Iaccarino, in what Maamun Abdul Karim told AFP was “the first real, visible positive step that the international community has taken to protect Syrian heritage”. The statues, one depicting a man and one a woman, had been recovered by Syrian troops at the 11th hour. They were saved in what has been called a tribute to the late Khaled al-Assad, the 82-year-old head of antiquities at Palmyra who was murdered by ISIS in 2015. The busts are being protected at an undisclosed location.

The path to restoration, as you might guess, doesn’t always run smoothly, even when there’s no war involved and no lives are at risk. A few of the dodgier attempts spring to mind: the so-called “SpongeBob Castle”, so named for the unimaginative concrete square plonked onto a ninth-century castle in Spain; modern aluminium windows in a 400-year-old tower (why?!); the ancient Buddhist site of Bagan, where restorers have been read the Riot Act for “using shovels where they should be using a paintbrush”. Then there’s the gloopy epoxy dribble all over King Tut’s beard (resembling unfortunate phlegm leakage and sadly irreversible); a Qing dynasty fresco, Disney style; the controversial use of concrete in the repair of Cairo’s medieval walls; or the inexplicable censorship of the 13th century Tree of Fertility fresco (no phallic symbols – nothing to see here, folks). More recently in Canada, Baby Jesus was unaccountably transformed into a terracotta Lisa Simpson with halibut lips.

But top of the list must be the Ecce Homo fresco painted by Elías García Martínez in Borja, Spain, which I check in on periodically just to amuse myself (I know, I should get out more). It did not fall victim to war or wilful destruction, merely outrage at poor maintenance. You may remember it as the painting in which Jesus was transformed into a “hairy monkey” by an over-zealous octogenarian who took it upon herself to restore the painting when her calls to have it restored professionally went unheeded. I don’t know about you, but I love a happy ending, so imagine my delight when I found out that Cecilia Giménez is now recognised as an artist in her own right. Her artworks are being exhibited and sold on eBay and wine farms are cat-fighting over the rights to use her fuzzy Jesus as their logo on bottles. Her restoration attempt even became the subject of a comic opera late in 2016. The botched painting has become a major tourist attraction, and in January this year, it was credited with saving the otherwise very sleepy town from economic meltdown. The best bit? Wikipedia is now crediting Gimenez and Martinez as co-creators of the artwork.

Well. Maybe there’s a lesson here that extends beyond restoration. I think it’s this: when the professionals don’t do their jobs, which sadly happens rather often, citizens are eventually going to step in, even if the chances are they’re going to make a hash of it. Certainly in South Africa we could take the restoration analogy – and its associated warning – to some of our officials. Bathabile Dlamini, for instance, may be flirting with some rather drastic civic intervention after – in context of everything else – blithely explaining that she had already attended a Scopa meeting last year. (Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all avoid meetings that way? I’ve a mind to ring her office and ask if it usually works, except I think Lumka Oliphant might still be mad at the press.)

But I digress. Desperate times, it seems, breed a kind of heroism, whether it’s the Syrian troops risking life and limb to save ancient relics; or one elderly amateur painter deciding that enough is enough, and taking a circuitous route to worldwide fame. One can’t predict when ordinary people will rise to the occasion. And the funny thing is, even when they make a pig’s ear of it, sometimes they out-perform the professionals. DM