Architecture and Immorality*

Some men take a hard line
And for that they get the rope
Some men fall from windows
Others slip on soap
Whether innocent or guilty
Lungile died the same
And in the halls of justice
The overseers just carry on their game

These lyrics composed in tribute to Lungile Tabalaza were written and performed by folk-singer and troubadour Roger Lucey, the track Lungile Tabalaza, which forms part of his first album released in 1978. Tabalaza died in detention on 11 July 1977 as a result of falling down the stairs.

An architectural structure can often lack aesthetic merit, but an ugly building with a dubious past becomes more than an eyesore. One such building still blights the Johannesburg skyline and hides in plain sight on the CBD's western edge.

David Goldblatt (b 1930) Johannesburg Central Police Station 27 February 2012, black and white photograph
David Goldblatt (b 1930) Johannesburg Central Police Station 27 February 2012, black and white photograph
Image: Images courtesy Warren Siebrits and the Art of Collecting ©The artist(s) or the artist’s estate

The building in question was formerly known as John Vorster Square and was not only a police station but the headquarters of the Special Branch who arrested, without warrant or trial, thousands of fellow citizens considered to be enemies of the apartheid state.

Today the building has been renamed the Johannesburg Central Police Station, and as David Goldblatt’s recent photograph taken on 27 February 2012 shows, it is the architectural personification of the banality of evil due to its inconspicuous form and facade. Goldblatt recently wrote about his motivations behind accumulating an impressive archive of memory, built up over more than a half century of observation, conceptualisation and realisation and culminating in the production of many hundreds of poignant photographic images that speak about the implications of manmade structures.

"More recently, I have photographed some structures eloquent of our still nascent democracy, and others of ineloquent strains of thought and governance that are insidiously and even blatantly undermining democracy...," says Goldblatt. 

"In the belief that in what we build we express much about what we value, I look at South African structures as expressions and declarations of values. They speak to our ethos."

I am only aware of two South African artists who have made works related to this building’s dubious past. They are both women, both printmakers and their works are linked by the legacy of two political detainees that both fell to their death, at different times, from the 10th storey windows of this structure.

Both Elza Botha (b 1938) and Mary Wafer (b 1975) were obliged, when conceptualising and producing their respective works, to consider the structure and facade of this building carefully, as their main motivation and intention was, ultimately, to record the act and trajectory of a falling body in space. It is such a horrific prospect, understood across cultures past and present. This was evident in the aftermath of 9/11 when the photographs of the jumpers from the World Trade Centre buildings were censored after a very short time as the images were considered too disturbing. To jump into open space with little or no chance of survival is an inhumane act, whether imposed or self-inflicted.

Elza Botha (b 1938) Timol, linocut on paper, edition proefdruk (artists proof) 22 x 15 cm, 1971. In February 2003 at the time of launching my gallery located on Jan Smuts Avenue, I had another impression of this image which was marked 10/10 which is illustrated in Prints and Multiples #1
Elza Botha (b 1938) Timol, linocut on paper, edition proefdruk (artists proof) 22 x 15 cm, 1971. In February 2003 at the time of launching my gallery located on Jan Smuts Avenue, I had another impression of this image which was marked 10/10 which is illustrated in Prints and Multiples #1
Image: Images courtesy Warren Siebrits and the Art of Collecting ©The artist(s) or the artist’s estate

 

Botha’s linocut was made days after the announcement of the death of Ahmed Timol who died on 27 October 1971. In a bizarre and callous public statement that appeared in the press and typifies the inhumanity of apartheid ideology and practise, Brigadier Piet Kruger, deputy chief of the Security Police, said: "Timol was a hero of the Communists today. We who know the Communists know that when they plan to use violence they make their people swear an oath to commit suicide rather than mention the names of their comrades. They are taught to jump before they are interrogated.'

In contrast, Wafer created an etching, which depicts a much wider aspect of the facade of John Vorster Square, and although there is no figure in free-fall, there is a stippled line showing a trajectory from the top floor of the building to the ground below. The title of the work inscribed in the margin in pencil, Room 1008, John Vorster Square, 15 February 1977, further conceals the nature and identity of the victim at first glance, but it is not difficult to work out that this work pays homage to Mathews Mabelane who was also said to have fallen from the windows of Room 1008 during an interrogation session.

Mary Wafer (b 1975) Room 1oo8, John Vorster Square, 15 February 1977, etching on paper, edition 20/20, 25 x 30 cm, 2015
Mary Wafer (b 1975) Room 1oo8, John Vorster Square, 15 February 1977, etching on paper, edition 20/20, 25 x 30 cm, 2015
Image: Images courtesy Warren Siebrits and the Art of Collecting ©The artist(s) or the artist’s estate

The crucial difference between the two works is that while Botha’s was produced days after the event Wafer’s was only made in 2015, 38 years after the tragedy recorded in her work occurred. Botha needed more courage to produce her work, which was done during a time of intense censorship and intimidation.

Although Wafer and Goldblatt were spared the trauma of confronting these dangers when making their works they must however both still be commended for remembering and contextualising the dangers of forgetting the historical context of one’s immediate environment. There is great wisdom to be gleaned in not only the act of remembering but also in the process of lifting the veil that often obscures the true nature of things. Great philosophers like Aristotle reminded us many centuries ago that the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance which remains the hallmark of any true artist.


*The term 'Architecture and Immorality' was conceived by Konrad Welz (b 1967) to title an early video work dating from 1990. This work is a pioneering and seminal piece of South African video art and was more than two decades in advance of the current trend and hype that surround the field at present. Architecture and Immorality has the honour and distinction of being the first video work to have been purchased by the South African National Gallery (SANG) along with William Kentridge’s first two films that date to this time, the works being purchased by SANG sometime in late 1991 or early 1992. Konrad’s idea and inspiration for making the work was to document aspects of local architecture that the artist felt to be immoral at the dawn of a new era in South Africa. Buildings filmed included the Johannesburg General Hospital, Mario Chiavelli’s mansion in Sandton (now Summer Place), John Vorster Square and Diepkloof Prison. The title was inspired by an early electronic music masterpiece by OMD titled Architecture and Morality (1981). Because it was illegal to film a venue like John Vorster Square during the apartheid years it was done so from many blocks higher up on Commissioner Street. Konrad filmed from the passenger seat while I drove. I thank him for his inspiration and friendship and I would like to dedicate this week’s Art of Collecting to him.

For more information about these works please email the author at enquiries@warrensiebrits.co.za

© Wanted 2016 - If you would like to reproduce this article please email us.