1. Built environment
  2. Architecture & design
November 12, 2014updated 20 Jul 2021 2:33pm

Cape Town's new Nelson Mandela memorial is terrible

By City Monitor Staff

When you think of human rights campaigner, philanthropist and politician Nelson Mandela, what leaps to mind first? Is it his civil disobedience campaigns? The time he established Africa’s first black law firm? His continued activism during his three decade imprisonment?

Well, South African artist Michael Elion has made that tough decision for you with his new Mandela memorial, installed in Cape Town last week:

Image: Art Times.

If, like us, your reaction to that image is “general incomprehension”, allow us to explain. The sculpture takes the form of a 2.5m tall pair of stainless steel Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses. And yes, as you may suspect:

a)      Ray-Ban glasses were never Mandela’s signature look – not least because he spent nearly a third of his life in prison, where we hear vogueish designer eyewear isn’t easy to come by.

b)      Even when Mandela did don shades, he didn’t particularly favour Wayfarers. Here’s a snap of the man in a pair of aviators:

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Image: Reuters.

c)       The sculpture was indeed sponsored by Ray-Ban.

The sculpture’s titled “Perceiving Freedom”, and, a little confusingly, looks out towards Robben island, where Mandela was imprisoned for nealy two decades.

Elion told South Africa’s Art Times that the glasses, with their clear lenses, “symbolise the invisible barriers and prejudices that exist in our perceptions and shape the way we view the world”.

As important as this point undoubtedly is, it doesn’t really explain why his tribute to Nelson Mandela, which is also meant to commemorate nearly 20 years of South African democracy, is basically just a giant advert. 

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