Roderick Sauls, the artist behind the memorial, wanted to draw attention to one of the ways in which the race classification law was applied, and he also wanted to give passers-by something to contemplate
PICTURE: LENORE CAIRNCROSS © SUNDAY TIMES
BY SUE VALENTINE
RODERICK Sauls says he wanted to remind people of the humiliation caused by South Africa’s racially charged past without giving offence.
In devising the concept for the Race Classification Appeal Board artwork, Sauls was wary of reproducing an apartheid-era artefact that might offend and remind people of the humiliation that was once entrenched in every element of urban infrastructure.
At the same time, however, he knew he wanted to draw attention to one way in which the law was applied and to give passers-by something to contemplate.
What inspired him was also the opportunity to create an artwork in the city with which people can interact. He believes passionately in the potential of art to transform and educate people.
"I’ve been working with these ideas for so long, it was an opportunity to have a voice in the city, and to be given the space," says Sauls. He hopes his creation of two benches — evoking the laws that separated black and white South Africans in all public spaces — will invite people to "transgress" the labels as well as to reflect on the absurdity of it all.
Sauls’s favourite medium is print making. So how does the construction of two benches fit with this?
"My installations are always print making. You see Rod’s Room [in the District Six Museum] — the block is part of the print making. Some people might say it’s a sculpture, but first you create the block," says Sauls.
The benches are inscribed with text, an element Sauls loves to work with, especially when it’s in a public environment.
Initially his plan was to inscribe a wall with text so that one could run one’s fingers over the letters and feel the text. This concept evolved into the bench with words burnt into the wood so one can still feel the text.
"I took it a little further, you can now use the piece, and sit and rest a while," he adds.
The two benches — constructed from concrete and wood — mimic apartheid-era public benches with the inscription "Whites Only" and "Non-Whites Only". However, the text etched into the wooden beams quotes extracts from the Population Registration Act which categorised all South Africans into pseudo-scientifically defined "races" — and formed a cornerstone of the apartheid façade.
It also quotes from the Government Gazette documenting the "reclassification" of individuals from one racial category to another, effectively altering their status as citizens, depending on their classification.
Sauls has his own name for each of his artworks. He has entitled this piece Die Bankie Gedagte (The Bench of Thoughts).
"In the old days, because of how people were divided between non-whites and whites, people would walk past a bench [from which they were excluded] and never sit there. There was nobody around but still they would not sit there; people were just scared," says Sauls.
The artist is acutely aware of the painful memories surrounding race classification and its impact on people’s lives.
"I didn’t want the piece to offend anyone. I believe there’s a way of doing art; I live in a society now where these things are very sensitive. You consciously think about things, but I wanted to use the words," he says.
Sauls’s hope is that people will engage with his artwork; that they will sit on the benches and think about what happened in the past.
"It’s very important how you can put fear into people’s lives and how people walk around with that fear," he adds. "It’s a very small thing, but a very big thing in our history that people overlook and we don’t talk about it."