Walls tell of the great and small
OLD PRISONS: MESSAGES AND MURALS
Each week Marie-Lais looks out for the unusual, the unique, the downright quirky or just something or someone we might have had no idea about, even though we live here. We like to travel our own cities and their surrounds, curious to feel them out. This week she’s on the hill where the walls talk.
The first mural expressions, in the old prison cells of Constitution Hill, must be the inmates’ scratched pleas they perhaps hoped would speak for them. Within and outside the complex we find murals today all over the hill, some even unknown to the staff. The very first to be encountered inside, approaching the Constitutional Court, is a long low mural of 12 high-profile heads, previous inmates of the three jails, many with chains over their shoulders, Gandhi burdened by the heaviest. Along with others like Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and Albertina Sisulu is a man called Smith, wearing glasses. I can’t think who he is unless he’s a woman, like Vesta Smith.
Probably the most viewed mural covers a wall in the visitors reception area. The receptionists don’t know anything about it, but it’s a bold, colourful, stylised work, perhaps intended to show the diversity of visitors. There may be a clue to who the artist is in that one head in front is much bigger than the rest or that one blonde woman appears twice in different outfits.
We meet the media manager at the Fort Office, who gives us a map of almost all the outer wall murals, but doesn’t know about the one at the reception. Of the row of the heads of previous inmates, she suggests that the mural was commissioned by the public works department. She doesn’t know who Smith is either.
Heather and I traipse along the Rea Vaya road, Joubert, which features most of the murals, starting with a green stencilling of a girl holding her mouth under a tap: “water is a human right”, on to the late Hugh Masekela, all blue, his hat jammed low with his Send Me lyrics alongside, courtesy of Learn & Teach at Wits. Our late poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile follows, reading his Festive Heart advisory poem.
My favourite is Dada Khanyise’s comic Afropolitan Teaparty, in which the women seem absorbed in taking selfies and phone shots of the cakes and macaroons. The conversation? It’s “Let’s Put Our Leaders in Rice”. Before walking around to Queen Street, we pass Mr FuzzySlipperz’ mural of a woman arrayed in a flurry of leaves and fruit, with Archbishop Emeritus Tutu’s saying about doing our little bit of good.
There’s a guard at Nardstar’s purples and blue mural on Queen of great female activist prisoners. Whatever they’re saying to us, all seven are doing it with their eyes.