The precursors to the bronze hats that constitute a major part of Madi Phala’s memorial
PICTURE: COURTESY OF LESLEY PERKES
BY SUE VALENTINE
"I’D READ about the Mendi, we’d sung about the Mendi, but I’d never looked into it until I was given this commission," said Madi Phala, whose sculpture remembers the men lost in the icy waters of the English Channel in February 1917.
The sculpture is set on a grassy embankment below a soccer field on the middle campus of the University of Cape Town. This was the site, some 90 years ago, where troops of the South African Native Labour Contingent were billeted before marching to Table Bay harbour and embarking for France on the SS Mendi.
The sculpture evokes, in Phala’s words, "the history of the people — the black corps, the officers and the crew members".
Phala said his brief was to avoid anything "epic or monumental", which posed a significant challenge in developing the piece.
"It was very limiting. I think in epic and monumental terms, but the joy of it was the challenge... It’s not like you look at it and you’ve got the answers, you’ll still want to talk to me, you’ll want to ask me questions … It’s not all about what I’m saying, it’s about how you perceive it. That’s very important."
Being commissioned to work on this piece also made Phala reflect on his past and on names that had no meaning to him. "All of a sudden I’m getting so many questions; I’m being pushed to study further. Where I come from in Springs, we’ve got a street Wauchope Street. I’ve got to go back to Springs, find out why that street is called Wauchope."
A key partner in helping Phala realise his concept was blacksmith and artist Luke Atkinson, who also headed the four-man team that installed the artwork.
Atkinson says he met Phala at his foundry when "Madi just walked in one day — I think he was looking for someone else!" They discussed ideas and a three-month collaboration ensued.
"On this job we’ve been the manufacturers mostly," said Atkinson, who forged the steel into the desired hull-like shape using traditional blacksmithing techniques.
The hats, which constitute the main message of the sculpture, are bronze.
"We started off with wax moulds which were dipped in a ceramic shell, then cast in bronze," said Atkinson. "We did an acid etch to get all the lettering and detail on them and then patina to age them."
Phala and Atkinson did not want the sculpture to be raised on a platform or plinth. They wanted it be flat on the ground so that it became part of the environment and people could walk over and through it.
The different elements of the work — the steel hull and bronzed caps and helmets — were welded onto a metal frame which lies 30cm beneath the ground and has been set into a concrete slab. Etched onto the bronze crowns of the hats and helmets are the numbers of the troops and crew members who died.
The work depicts a sinking ship while lined up in front of the prow are the different hats and helmets of those who died.