The Progressive Power of Public Art

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Public art has a vital and moving, though at times paradoxical, role. It reflects the circumstances and truth of the moment or era in which it exists. Undeniably, this art form can enchant its audience by reflecting a never-to-be-forgotten past, or it may alert its audience to the present, allowing viewers to recognize themselves and social behaviors within public areas (Phillips,1989, p.331). Its paradoxical nature is intriguing because although public art holds a timestamped quality and demonstrates having a fixed element about it, it simultaneously stays relevant and spontaneous as it mirrors and responds to its time and cultural background (Phillips,1989, p.331). More specifically, the art tends to interact with its observer temporally. It serves as a broad mirror of the community whose area it occupies and may even occasionally contain a provoking aspect.

As a result of its paradoxical nature, public art tends to be expected to inherit an inescapable status as a public historical relic acting as a physical documentation of an era’s sentiments and aspirations (Phillips,1989, p.331). Various historical monuments could be investigated to highlight and exemplify this anticipated role of surviving as a historical artifact. In South Africa, some historical monuments of public art are today viewed as provocative because they are regarded as a type of elite capture, prompting resistance. In these cases, public art tends to play a role in the reform process of the society, and its presence creates a platform for a resolution to the tension that it initially incited.

Joanne Sharp et al. make the statement that; “public art can be inclusionary/exclusionary as part of the wider project of urban regeneration” (Sharp, Pollock and Paddison, 2005, p.1000). The 2015 objective of removing a sculpture from the University of Cape Town as part of the 2015 Rhodes Must Fall protest movement in South Africa might be a good scenario for describing an example of public art manifesting as a historical relic that later sparked opposition in a newer generation. The uproar was sparked by a monument of Cecil John Rhodes, the late British imperialist. The statue created by Marion Walgate; was unveiled in 1934 and, it was subsequently placed on campus at the University of Cape Town as a homage to Rhodes. As global media attention and coverage of the Rhodes Must Fall protest movement grew, it became clear that the problem with the statue was that it undermined South Africa’s liberation from colonialism. More specifically, the monument was regarded as denoting a lack of transition in South Africa following the country’s brutal apartheid history.

Keeping the monument as a public historical monument would jeopardize South Africa’s anti-apartheid progress and achievements since the statue represented a latent retreat with colonial connotations. Civil disobedience and online activism were part of the Rhodes Must Fall protest movement. Given that the events took place on a university campus, the protests sparked a broader campaign in South Africa with the primary objective of decolonizing education (Hlophe, 2015, para. 4). The movement quickly spread internationally and even encouraged the formation of similar student initiatives at other universities outside of South Africa (Hlophe, 2015, para. 4). The statue got dismantled in early April of 2015 and, the situation was an example of how; “public art, intersects with the processes of urban restructuring and how it is a contributor, but also antidote, to the conflict that typically surrounds the restructuring of urban space” (Sharp, Pollock and Paddison, 2005, p.1000).

It should be noted that demonstrations against the Rhodes monument and calls for its dismantling had been ongoing for decades. Prior to the 2015 Rhodes Must Fall Movement, Afrikaner students led a similar protest initiative in the 1950s, wanting the statue demolished because Rhodes was a British imperialist who represented the objective of attempting to maintain British dominance in South Africa, he believed the Afrikaner populace was inferior to the British (Masondo, 2015). In their journal article, Sharp et al. point out that: as part of a larger urban redevelopment initiative, public art may be both inclusive and exclusive (Sharp, Pollock and Paddison, 2005, p.1000). The continued attempts at intervention against this piece of public art may have been vital to a progressive movement towards inclusion since the constant attempts at intervention against the statue may equally be seen as attempts to promote inclusion.

In South Africa, public art has frequently arisen as an important topic of discussion. Notably, some artworks, for example, have sparked debate, whilst others have fulfilled the objective of adding to the aesthetic embellishment of a public area or have simply called attention to public spaces intending to stimulate inspired thinking and fresh ideas. In several instances, it has been contested whether graffiti and street art qualify as public art. According to Sonya Curiel, “Street art is a part of cultural heritage. It could either show complex narratives or help the community look aesthetically appealing. It is a form of art that is accessible to anyone and could be created by any artist. It could be used as a powerful tool against any social tension, from protests to racism” (Curiel cited in Luthuli, 2020, para. 3).

Graffiti, in particular, began to appear in Cape Town amid the advent of Hip Hop in the 1980s, and it was frequently used to remark on apartheid’s injustices. According to Clyde Ross Walters, graffiti as a form of public art has also evolved in South Africa, notably in Cape Town, where graffiti painting was widespread on the city outskirts throughout the late twentieth century. “The graffiti/street art movement in New York is similar to the situation which was experienced on the Cape Flats, whereby youngsters rattled spray cans to flare an array of colours to the walls of buildings in this peripheral urban neighbourhood in Cape Town” (Tshabalala cited in Walters, 2017, p. 4). The South African youth in the Cape Flats appeared to have been influenced by New York’s graffiti street art movement; they utilized graffiti as a method for artistically putting out a message challenging the country’s governmental legitimacy, which had been a source of injustice and oppression for them (Walters, 2017, p.4). Graffiti or street art serves a similar function as public art, and the names are usually used interchangeably. Graffiti and street art, in particular, are widely viewed as public art in cities such as Cape Town since much of it provides uplifting reflections, contributes towards a radiant and vibrant atmosphere, and acts as an aesthetic and expressive depiction of the city’s past. Apartheid’s legacy lingers in Cape Town, which is still marked by a disproportionate split in which black and coloured communities are conspicuously less developed than predominantly white populated areas. As a result, public and street art are often used in places like these to reflect on the city’s economic and social issues.

Even if graffiti and street art are both recognized as public art, a distinction may be made between the two. Although both are art forms in their own right, graffiti has a more stigmatized reputation. The praises for street art and graffiti mentioned above are mostly intended towards street art rather than graffiti. Street art is often more welcomed and commended by the general public; since it can considerably contribute to the aesthetic enhancement of public space while simultaneously communicating or sending a contemplative statement. Graffiti, on the other hand, has a more combative tone, and its artists frequently conceal their names to avoid being fined or prosecuted for vandalism (Luthuli, 2020, para. 7). Graffiti, like street art, conveys a reflective message, but graffiti expresses a more raw and unedited protest.

In the notable 2014 case involving a public artwork by artist Michael Elion, placed at Sea Point promenade in Cape Town, graffiti was utilized in this fashion to overtly protest and demonstrate defiance against a contentious public art piece. The Perceiving Freedom public artwork is a sculpture of a pair of steel Ray-Ban Wayfarers sunglasses. Initially, the sculpture was claimed to be a tribute to South Africa’s late president, Nelson Mandela. The sculpture overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and is positioned to stare directly at Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years (Cascone, 2014, para. 3). The artworks intended message, according to the artist, is that the sculpture “links us to the mind of a man whose incredible capacity to transcend enduring physical hardship, with unwavering mental fortitude and dignity, transformed the consciousness of an entire country” (Elione cited in Cascone, 2014, para. 3).

Even though the idea behind the sculpture was highly contemplative and meaningful, many people criticized the physical artwork, believing that it was an improper memorial to Nelson Mandela’s legacy. The art piece, showing huge Ray-Ban sunglasses, was accused of failing to represent Mandela’s legacy and serving its own commercial interests instead since it looked to be a massive advertisement for the brand Ray-Ban. In addition, many people were outraged that the substantial funds used for the artwork were misallocated when there are more pressing issues in Cape Town that require financing, such as education, housing, and employment opportunities (Walters, 2017, p. 4). In this case, graffiti artists used spray paint to ‘vandalize’ the artwork to illuminate opposition and disapproval towards the art piece.

According to Walters, “Public art can contribute to the promotion of a city’s image-making the city internationally competitive” (Walters, 2017, p.14). This is a slightly contentious subject because it is sometimes questioned whether government spending on public art projects is necessary, especially when contrasted to other socioeconomic ventures that may require funds more urgently (Walters, 2017, p.14). The potential for public art to improve a city’s economic viability and hence benefit the country is substantial. In many cities, including Durban, Cape Town, and Johannesburg, public art in the form of monuments, street art, theatrical street performances, and so on has significantly contributed to the development of areas into tourist attractions, thus increasing the economic value of the city as a tourist destination. On the other hand, public art may sometimes have the opposite impact and contribute to a bad reputation for an area; this is especially prevalent when an area is decorated with a large amount of graffiti as the primary form of public art (Walters, 2017, p.14). Since graffiti is commonly associated with defacement, juvenile delinquency, and criminal activity, these locations rapidly become dubbed ‘bad’ or ‘dangerous’ areas to be avoided.

Public art is, without a doubt, a democratic art form. It is valuable and frequently inspires free thought and insight into a location’s history, character, and contemporary atmosphere. Public art has the power to transcend time in some circumstances, while it may remain and thrive for multiple generations until it becomes obsolete in others. In the latter scenario, it has the potential to provoke change by being controversial, therefore generating resistance in the generation to which it has survived, and it is the perception of the public art installation as a communal foe to be beaten that brings a generation together in these circumstances. Furthermore, public art has the power to reflect and mirror a civilization. As a result, it successfully conveys the tale of its environment and distinguishes and uniquely characterizes an area.



Cascone, S. (2014) ‘Nelson Mandela Memorialized by Bizarre, Giant Sunglasses ’, artnet, 12 November. Available at: (Accessed: 29 December 2021).

Hlophe, W. (2015) ‘Rhodes must fall everywhere ’, yaledailynews, 1 April. Available at: (Accessed: 31 December 2021).

Luthuli, L. (2020) MATTERS OF OBSESSION: The writing is on the wall: street art as a vital form of expressionDaily Maverick. Available at: (Accessed: 31 December 2021).

Masondo, S. (2015) Rhodes: As divisive in death as in News24. Available at: (Accessed: 30 December 2021).

Phillips, P.C. (1989) ‘Temporality and public art’, Art Journal, 48(4), pp. 331–335. doi:10.1080/00043249.1989.10792651.

Sharp, J., Pollock, V. and Paddison, R. (2005) ‘Just art for a just city: public art and social inclusion in urban regeneration’, Urban Studies, 42(5–6), pp. 1001–1023. doi:10.1080/00420980500106963.



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