Ray-Ban Mandela

2014-11-16 18:00

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Michael Elion responds to the criticism levelled at his installation

A giant pair of sunglasses erected on the Sea Point Promenade under the auspices of the public art initiative Art54, and with the support of World Design Capital, has had tongues wagging.

As the glasses face Robben Island, artist Michael Elion has chosen to invoke a picture of Nelson Mandela wearing a similar-looking pair of glasses on the island while he was imprisoned there.

Due to this similarity, Elion approached Ray-Ban and managed to get the company to partially fund the project and, in exchange, the glasses would be shaped exactly like a pair of Ray-Bans, whose name is featured prominently on the plaque next to the work of art, which is called Perceiving Freedom.

Cape Town councillor Garreth Bloor, the mayoral committee member for tourism, said: “When the artist responsible for Perceiving Freedom approached Art54, no mention was made of a commercial sponsor or a link with Nelson Mandela. Approval was granted for his initial concept. It is only subsequent to the installation being erected that a link was made by the artist between his piece, Ray-Ban sunglasses and Nelson Mandela.”

Art54 is in the unenviable position of having to formulate a position that defends its decision to part of the work, while not hanging their artist out to dry.

But Elion himself has done a pretty good job of hanging himself. We spoke to Elion about the controversy, and the perceived social-media outrage.

Originally, the piece was meant to be on Camps Bay. Is that right?

The work started out as a piece about perception. The reflectivity of the lenses, in which you would see yourself on the beach, seminaked, was alluding to the intense disparity between the way we view the world and the way the world views us, raising interesting questions about identity, especially within the context of a predominantly white, kitsch, botoxed environment.

When did Ray-Ban come into it?

My first port of call is always to figure out how to get the funding.

Without it, these large projects cannot get made in South Africa. The funding I received fell far short of what was necessary to produce the project.

Ray-Ban did not ask me to [use them]. I asked them for a pair to try to match the proportions.

Where did Mandela come into it?

Mandela came into it very late in the day. When I visited the site, I realised the glasses would practically be looking straight at Robben Island, and it seemed like something that would be foolish not to acknowledge.

I immediately contacted the Nelson Mandela Foundation and asked them for permission to use the photograph [of Mandela wearing sunglasses].

What was Art54’s involvement?

Art54, in conjunction with the department of arts and culture, helped with getting all the different permissions from the city. They had no involvement in the evolution of the concept.

A lot of the criticism has been around the fact that Ray-Ban, a corporation, is operating in what is meant to be an advertising-free zone, and then to capitalise commercially on Mandela.

I approached Ray-Ban, not the other way around. The Rhinosaur sculpture [also on the Sea Point Promenade] is sponsored by Woolworths, as is written on the plaque. The fact that I chose a pair of glasses as a metaphorical device that could open a dialogue about perception is incidental, as opposed to some conniving trickery.

You’re facing a lot of critique on your own, yet surely some of these decisions were made by the public art committee.

I am more than happy to take the criticism on my own. It’s my work of art…

Do you think a black artist would be getting this much negative attention for the same work?

A lot of the criticism has to do with me being a privileged white person placing art in a privileged, predominantly white, area. I don’t think a black artist would get as much flak.

[South African artist] Candice Breitz pointed out on a Facebook thread that there were very few black people jumping to your defence on your page.

I have very few black Facebook friends and very few in real life, and that has to do with my environment, not my choice. I’m not sure how relevant that comment is.

You’ve posed this question: ‘What does it mean for each of us to be truly free?’ For you, what does it mean to be truly free?

Free to produce, which comes from financial freedom – what’s in my bank account, and how hard I’ve worked to get it there...

Freedom for me is being able to choose to do exactly what I want to do whenever I want to do it without infringing on anyone else’s right to do the same.

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