fertile fence

How a piece of apartheid history became jewelry

July 14, 2014
July 14, 2014

Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was jailed for 18 years, is an indelible part history—and now it’s business.

In 2009, South African artist Chris Swift saw that the steel fence surrounding the infamous jail was being loaded on to a ship to be discarded. He took the fence, cut it up into pieces and stored it to make into large art installations, and some he is selling to companies that turn it into art for sale. Much of the fence Swift was used for one of Swift’s pieces, “Nelson’s Column,” which stood outside the city hall in 2010:

Nelson's Column 1

While Swift’s public installations aren’t for sale, he’s given rights to others to buy his fence to be sold off as art for profit, prompting some to question whether it’s wrong to cash in on the country’s biggest symbol of apartheid history. One writer called it apartheid porn, “where any bit of memorabilia associated with our history of oppression is turned into a cash cow.” But some have lapped it up, including the government authorities and some international celebrities.

From the Robben Island Fence (run separately, but in close collaboration with Swift’s Robben Island Arts Company Trust (RIACT), you can buy pieces of the fence framed alongside a painting of Nelson Mandela by  artist Marc Alexander. In some pieces, as in the one called “Day Off” (below center), the piece of fence is attached to the canvas. Each piece of fence is cut and numbered by Swift, and each artwork (also signed by Alexander), is sold with a certificate of authenticity. The works sell for between $500-$2,500. 

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Three artworks containing pieces of Robben Island fence. Prices, from left: $2,500, $2,500, $700.

The art that recently made news is called the Legacy Collection features bangles, cufflinks, and necklaces made by jeweler Chairmaine Taylor covered in silver or gold. Taylor runs Legacy Collection independently and buys pieces of fence from RIACT. Her jewelry sells for between and $230-$7,770. Paula Abdul owns the Rights Pendant and Grace Earrings in gold:

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Paula Abdul wearing a pendant and earring.Photo courtesy Legacy Collection

Actress Frances Fischer also bought two pieces of Taylor’s jewelry.

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Frances Fisher (left), portrayed with a friend, wears the Release pendant.

Yvonne Johnston, the marketing director at the Robben Island Fence, says she doesn’t understand the ethical dilemma. “Would people rather the fence was thrown away, that would have been sacrilege.” And she won’t shy away from the fact that this is for profit. “Of course, this is a commercial venture, we’re all allowed to make a living, aren’t we? We spend our time in South Africa complaining that artists die poor, it’s a fantastic thing to be able to give artists a living.”

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Jewelry by Charmaine Taylor.Photo courtesy Legacy Collection

At this point, the only artists who make money from the venture are white. Johnston admits that this is an oversight and they are working to right by broadening their scope. The organization, she says, will also to start giving 10% of its profits to Awethu, an NGO that develops local entrepreneurs.

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Jewelry by Charmaine Taylor. Pendants, from left, $560, $530, $520. The Africa-shaped fence in the background, dipped in gold, is sold for $1,500.Photo courtesy Legacy Collection

RIACT never sells raw pieces of the fence to individuals and prefers bulk sales of art to once-offs. “Just recently the South African presidency bought a large number of artworks to give to a visiting delegation,” said Johnston. All the company wants, says Johnston, is to give artists another channel through which they can get their work out.

But it’s not as easy as that, and Johnston herself says, that all these questions about ethics and history are helping them fine-tune their young business model. “It makes me realize more how important this is (the work being linked to the name of Nelson Mandela). It helps me see what the market really cares about.”

Follow Joonji on Twitter @joonji. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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