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Jozi gets its Statue of Liberty
18 June 2009

Joburg will soon get its own Statue of Liberty

The pursuit of public art to beautify Joburg carries on, with an artwork by the world-renowned William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx set for the inner city.

NEW YORK has its 46m tall Statue of Liberty; and now Joburg is soon to get its own Statue of Liberty, in the form of a 10m tall woman walking with a burning brazier on her head.

The Firewalker is a joint creation of William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx
The Firewalker is a joint creation of William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx

The artwork, entitled The Firewalker, is the joint creation of world-renowned Joburg artist William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx, and is expected to be installed at the southern end of Queen Elizabeth Bridge in the CBD at the end of the June.

"The image of a woman carrying light or fire on her head does, of course, evoke the image of the Statue of Liberty. But she is a very particular Statue of Liberty - Johannesburg's Statue of Liberty - which carries with it, at every point, either the history or the threat of its own collapse," say the artists in a statement.

"This image is typical of the street culture of Johannesburg and very particular to the site on which the work will be installed," they explain. "These entrepreneurs sell roasted ‘mielies' and also ‘smileys' [roasted sheep's heads] to pedestrians, and are often seen carrying their burning braziers on their heads as they find places from which to sell their food."

These food sellers operate on the site where the artwork is to be installed - a triangle of open land alongside the Metro Mall taxi rank.

"In this sense the work is a monument to the everyday, the overlooked, and to the activities that have taken place on that site for so many years."

The Firewalker is almost double the height of another striking public artwork - Clive van den Berg's 5,5m Eland, at the top of Jan Smuts Avenue in Braamfontein.

Keen to get a Kentridge
The Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) has been keen for some time to get a Kentridge work as a public artwork in the city, says artist Marcus Neustetter, the director of the Trinity Session, the commissioning agent for many of the public artworks that have gone up around the city.

Kentridge, it seems, has also been keen to do an artwork for the city. He is working with Marx at the moment on other projects, and the idea for the Firewalker emerged from discussions between the two.

"It is quite exciting to do something in the city I have been living in for the past 54 years, since my birth," Kentridge said.

He is not the only one who is excited about the piece. The JDA chief executive, Lael Bethlehem, said on 702 Talk Radio recently: "We are getting our very first William Kentridge!"

Three layers of steel
The work consists of three layers of steel sheeting, welded together, depicting the silhouetted image of the woman in black and white.

The work will be constructed "using laser cut steel plates, evocative of torn bits of paper, that are arranged in a seemingly abstract manner. If one approaches the work from the direction of the bridge itself these loose steel fragments combine to create the cohesive image of The Firewalker, this image then ‘explodes' into loose individual fragments and abstraction as you move around it," say the artists.

"The moments of visual chaos and the moments of visual cohesion are of equal importance within the work."

The sculpture, says Kentridge, evokes memories of the 1990s when there were numerous women in the city using the braziers for business and to warm themselves. "There were always women walking around carrying the braziers on their heads," Kentridge said in late April, when a tarpaulin model of the work was erected on the site.

"The sculpture will be in different layers to make a coherent picture even from a long distance," he added.

Neustetter says that Kentridge and Marx are devoting a lot of time to this work.

"When seen in a fractured state the work becomes almost animated, at times it seems as if she strides ahead with great certainty, at times she seems about to trip and fall and at times the work is evocative of a riotous, or perhaps joyous mass of people, just before the work flies into complete abstraction. But then, even within the abstraction there is always a hint of figuration, the promise and suggestion of cohesion," say the artists.

Triangle to be revamped
The triangle on which the work will be installed is at present used as a car wash area for about 80 taxis. These will be relocated, and the area will be landscaped, with new lighting, bollards and pathways constructed. A Bus Rapid Transit station will also be positioned at its southern end.

Neustetter indicates that the sculpture could be considered contentious. On the one hand it could be seen as an example of "the ingenuity and innovation around survival", but on the other it highlights what women have to go through to make ends meet.

"It stimulates the imagination - if we carry fire on our heads, what else can we do?" he wondered. "But there is a certain amount of disturbance - should someone have to do this?"

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