Walls tell of the great and small

OLD PRIS­ONS: MES­SAGES AND MU­RALS

The Citizen (Gauteng) - - CITY -

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.

Pic­ture: Heather Ma­son

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