The City of Tshwane is having a moment, and it needs you to know that it is not the more conservative younger cousin of hip and happening Jozi down South. Nowhere is this more evident than in its growing emphasis on public art and green precincts.
When the forward-thinking Menlyn Maine green precinct was being planned in 2010, architect Henk Bogertman approached Anton Smit and asked him to create a sculpture for the envisaged 135,000m2 office, residential, shopping and hotel complex, South Africa’s first green precinct, overlooking 5,700m2 of urban green space running through the centre of the project.
Menlyn Mine is partnered with the Clinton Climate Initiative as one of 16 projects worldwide that aim to be ‘climate positive developments’ – for instance, its attenuation ponds will recharge groundwater and decrease the potential impact of the stormwater systems in the district.
South African artist Anton Smit has been sculpting to national and international acclaim since the 1970s. He has exhibited throughout the land and abroad (he was featured at the SCOPE Art Fair in New York in 2017), increasingly also being commissioned by businesses such as Ferrari, BMW and M-Net to create tone-setting pieces at their premises. A career highlight was when he put 35 sculptures on exhibition in New York’s Grand Central Station. One of the pieces, an eight-foot-high bronze, The Age of Grace, was featured on the front page of the New York Times. The Rembrandt Foundation owns some of his work, as well as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. A collection of his work was exhibited at the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela at the Union Buildings in 1994.
I believe we require a spirit of faith, hope and love and we need to express it among each other.
Anton likes to work on a large scale, creating what critics have called ‘overwhelming heads’ and ‘monumental sculptures evoking themes of suffering, reconciliation, glory and sublimation’. His body of work focuses on human figures, heads and masks, using steel and other metals, fibreglass and bronze as well as stones, often in motion, with a raw, earthy African atmosphere.
The Spirit of Tshwane commission came about organically, says Anton. “I originally made a maquette of an African woman’s profile with a shadow profile at the back of the main artwork,’ he recalls. “Architect Pieter Mathews [founder of the Cool Capital Collective] showed my proposal to Menlyn Maine. I was then commissioned by Menlyn Maine for an 11-metre version of the sculpture in 2014.”
There are about 40 other sculptures to be viewed at Menlyn Maine, but The Spirit of Tshwane towers above them.
A career highlight was when he put 35 sculptures on exhibition in New York’s Grand Central Station.
“I put myself in a state of waking receptiveness, and I created the model on a 1:10 scale,” says the artist. “Now I had to work out how to scale the work up to 11 metres. The latest challenge was the addition of a central steel framework with the two faces made from glass, reinforced polymer and scrap metal to be attached in cut-up form, resulting in a large, breathing structure – an avant-garde futuristic look. That’s how my biggest, most expressive public artwork to date was created.”
Anton says the most difficult part was securing the sculpture on site and getting the large sections 11m up in the air. “We had to build a very large scaffold with stairs to reach there.”
But what does it all symbolise? Anton says all artists who create public work face the same challenges: to create artwork that evokes conversation but still has perennial appeal. “I studied the background of the people of Tshwane. Tshwane is the original name of the Apies River, so the river is symbolised by the flowing elements attached to the heads,” Anton says.
Anton also enjoys the idea of interdependence: “The two main heads grow from each other. The heads are cracked open so there is a lot of space for light to come in, and when light comes in there is growth! Hence the numerous different small faces popping out of the cracks, representing the people of Tshwane.”
Anton says: “It is my intention to interpret The Spirit of Tshwane positively. I believe we require a spirit of faith, hope and love and we need to express it among each other, making this the basis of our national pride.”
“Our country has important statues focused on our history and the past, on prominent leaders of the ANC and the Afrikaner. But we also need striking symbols of the new South Africa and our common future.”
On a lighter note, says the artist, “This is the ‘unbearable lightness of living in South Africa’ – it’s so light you just want to stay here! My thought process was to create lightness. I wanted people to identify with the piece and see humour and playfulness in it, as well as the diversity of our urban landscape.”
Anton has also made two smaller versions of the sculpture to enable collectors to buy it. The Kungwini heads are 500mm and 300mm high, respectively.
Anton Smit divides his time between his Cape Town studio and his studio at the Sculpture Park at the Bronkhorstspruit Dam, which he opened in 2003, and where he oversees the work of 16 artists. The outdoor exhibition site, sculpture garden and gallery, as well as coffee shop, are all open to the public and just 40 minutes from Pretoria and 60 minutes from Johannesburg, respectively. It’s well worth an outing. A smaller version of The Spirit of Tshwane is at the entrance of the Bronkhorstspruit Dam on the R25 and at the Anton Smit Sculpture Park and studios, where visitors can come and view a larger body of work by this and other artists.