Johannesburg gets work by major SAfrican artists

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Nelson Mandela statueSouth Africa’s bustling commercial capital paused for art Wednesday, with an unveiling ceremony for a monumental sculpture on a downtown traffic island.

A four-story sculpture welded from jagged sheets of steel is hard to veil. So what was revealed Wednesday in Johannesburg — as passing commuter vans honked and trains rumbled under a nearby bridge — was a plaque with the names of the South African artists who created it: William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx.

Kentridge, among South Africa’s best-known artists, has drawings, paintings and sculpture in major collections around the world. He ventures into directing next year with a production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s adaptation of “The Nose” premiering at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

The “Fire Walker” sculpture unveiled Wednesday is Kentridge’s first piece to go on public display in the city, his hometown.

From the south, Marx’s three-dimensional conception of a Kentridge watercolor at first appears to be a comment on urban debris, resembling giant scraps of paper kicked up by the winds. Some can make out a sketch of a striding miner, Kentridge’s tribute to the workers who unearthed the gold that built Johannesburg.

From the north, the black and white puzzle shapes make a silhouette of a “fire walker” — a woman carrying on her head a brazier that Johannesburg vendors use to roast corn or meat to sell to commuters.

Laura Mohlomi, a stylist from Soweto on her way to her midtown salon Wednesday, said she’d been walking by the site every work day for the past two months, watching the artists and workmen put it together. For her, she said, the giant woman represented change — the promise of official attention and development for downtown.

South Africa has not been able to escape the poverty more often associated with Africa than its creativity. Unemployment is at least 25 percent, the global economic crisis has brought recession, and signs of the struggle are easy to spot downtown.

Blocks from the sculpture unveiling, which attracted dozens of city officials in suits and artists in chic black, striking city workers marched demanding higher pay Wednesday.

But Johannesburg boasts that it is a world class city. It is hosting the first soccer World Cup to be held in Africa next year, its downtown is home to major banks and mining houses, and it has a nascent public art fund, following in the steps of such cities as Chicago and Toronto.

Joy Jacobs of the city’s economic development agency said the Kentridge-Marx sculpture cost about 1 million rand (about $130,000) from the public art fund, “practically a donation” from the artists. A model a quarter the size of the sculpture was recently sold to a French collector for just over 1 million rand, said curator Neil Dundas, whose Goodman Gallery represents Kentridge in South Africa.

“It’s a partial gift,” Kentridge said Wednesday.

“For me, it was a gift from the city to do something in the downtown part of town,” he said, gesturing south to a building overlooking his sculpture where his grandfather once had his law office.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.