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The Loose Art collection | Overview

Half of the artwork of the Constitutional Court consists of loose works of art on display in the gallery and other parts of the building. The other half is made up of integrated architectural artwork that forms part of the fabric of the building itself.

The Constitutional Court's loose artwork consists of about 200 works of art in a range of media - including tapestries, engravings, sculptures and paintings. But all of them are connected to the Constitution in some way and all contribute to the Court's special ambience.

Some are landscapes, abstract works, portraits that dignify working people and depictions from foreign lands; others evoke the past or celebrate new beginnings. All are gifts to the highest court in the land and tributes to the Constitution and its values.

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How the art was collected

Almost as remarkable as the scope and size of the collection is the manner in which it was gathered. The art was the responsibility and passion of one of the judges of the Court itself - Justice Albie Sachs. And the artworks were not the fruits of a large budget. Rather, they were donations from artists, gallery owners and patrons of the arts.

Albie Sachs conducts
a tour of the Court

Sachs's project stretches back to the beginning of the Constitutional Court in 1994. He was appointed - with a fellow judge, Justice Yvonne Mokgoro - to take charge of decor when the Court was still in its old building. By all accounts, Sachs took on the job with gusto.

His role has been to badger artists to donate a work or two - although most seem to have given willingly; this is not surprising, given the stature of the Court and the new building it inhabits.

It took Sachs nearly 10 years to gather the pieces but, as he is fond of saying, the collection assembled itself.

"It was work that came to us," he told the Sunday Times. "It is a collection that collected itself, and it is very much based on the passion and enthusiasm that the artists and arts community had for the achievement of democracy and what the Constitutional Court meant."

Sachs also donated several pieces from his own collection.

Although he acquired several works of art on his travels abroad, most are by local artists. The collection even includes craft objects, many of which Sachs bought on his travels across Africa.

As the same report tells it, Sachs had to learn to bargain.

"I did my BA [in bargaining] in Dakar, in their bazaar, and finally got my PhD at the Cairo bazaar. You have to be very tough and resolute there," he was quoted as saying.

The Constitutional Court's eclectic collection is worth millions of rands, but only R10 000 was set aside to buy the art - which makes the feat all the more remarkable. That budget was spent on one work, Joseph Ndlovu's 'Huddle', a tapestry.

Sachs later went on a speaking tour of the United States to raise more money. Contributions have also come from the Dutch and Finnish governments, the Getty Foundation and others. Some, such as Artists for Human Rights, have donated works.

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The artists

Sipho Ndlovu
- Images of South African History No 4

The works of dozens of leading South African artists are on display in the Court. There are large tapestries by Marlene Dumas, a selection by Gerard Sekoto from his Paris period, and drawings and a major sculpture by Dumile Feni.

Other well-known artists whose creations can be seen in the Court are Judith Mason, William Kentridge, Sipho Ndlovu, John Baloyi, Cecil Skotnes, Hamilton Budaza, Kim Berman, Ragi BarDavid, Willie Bester, Robert Hodgins, Pat Mautloa, Penny Siopis, Walter Oltman, Sue Williamson and Andrew Verster.

See the full list of artists for all those represented in the collection and examples of their works.

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The artwork

The collection takes you on a journey - from the harsh, baked and arid earth of the Karoo, to a stern-faced Nelson Mandela in New York; and from the smell and wonder of a Cape landscape in bloom, to tributes to South African women as heroines of struggle; from a woman whose flabby body sags under the weight of age to Moshoeshoe gazing at Thaba Bosiu, the mountain that served as a fortress for the Basotho in the 19th century.

Joseph Ndlovu
- Huddle

Ndlovu's 'Huddle' is an outstanding work that shows a group of sleeping figures. Another, a tapestry by Bester, depicts two women facing each other against the backdrop of a township.

One of Sach's favourites - a work referred to by many who have written about the Court's art - is Mason's 'The Blue Dress'. Sachs has been quoted as saying he thinks it "one of the great artworks of the 20th century".

Mason's triptych depicts a dress constructed from bits of blue plastic at which a predatory animal is tearing.

The artist had been listening to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings on the radio. She heard about a naked woman, with only a piece of plastic covering her private parts, who had been found in a shallow grave. The policeman who shot her in the head described how brave she had been - she had asked if she could kneel and sing Nkosi Sikelele before she was executed.

Judith Mason
- The Blue Dress 3

Mason found several blue plastic bags and stitched them together to make a dress. A painting followed but Sachs, after seeing it, asked if she could temper the snarling beast.

Mason produced a second painting, with a row of blazing braziers in the foreground, offering warmth and hope.

Sachs has given tours of the Court, sharing many anecdotes about the artists - several of whom he knows personally.

He describes Feni - an artist he knew in exile - as a close friend. One evening in 1969 Feni visited him in London and sketched a figure, giving it to Sachs - ostensibly in response to meals Sachs had shared with him. It now hangs in the gallery.

For more see the collection.

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