This time of year it is common to see lots of brightly colored leaves around Washington, D.C., but it is not every day that they enter the classroom. The connection these leaves have to social justice and our shared human experience is even more extraordinary.
Luckily for the AU Arts Management graduate students, handcrafted foliage was just one of the many exciting preparations made for our upcoming Fall Colloquium with special guest Albie Sachs, which will take place from 5:30 – 7:00 on November 18th at the Washington College of Law.
Known as one of the world’s leading human rights activists as well as for his work as a Justice on South Africa’s Constitutional Court, Sachs grew up during the era of apartheid in South Africa. He was born into a politically active family and followed in his father’s footsteps by fighting political battles in South Africa throughout his career and personal life.
In addition to being imprisoned twice, Sachs also risked his life for the causes he worked passionately to support. On April 7, 1988, a bomb planted in Sachs’s car exploded as he was unlocking the vehicle. He was rushed to the hospital and fortunately survived, although he had broken ribs, punctured eardrums and numerous other serious injuries. The accident resulted in the loss of a portion of his left arm and the loss of sight in one eye.
Although the attack nearly cost Sachs his life, he explains in his TedTalk video “Soft Vengeance,” that he felt “fantastic” that he had survived. Instead of feeling despair and torn down by the loss of his arm, he recounts his conviction that as he got better, his country would get better. He explains his survival as “soft vengeance.” He views soft vengeance not as getting revenge, but as getting freedom in South Africa. He reveals that he got to experience that “soft vengeance” coming to fruition with the rewriting of the South African Constitution.
In 1994, South Africa’s first national multiracial elections were held and Nelson Mandela was elected President. He appointed Sachs to one of the 11 seats on the country’s new Constitutional Court.
In addition to his 15 years of service with the Court, Sachs has travelled to many countries sharing South African experience in healing divided societies. He has also been engaged in the sphere of art and architecture, and played an active role in the development of the Constitutional Court building and its art collection on the site of the Old Fort Prison in Johannesburg. Sachs describes the courthouse as being “planted right in the heart of pain, to show that terrible energy, the negativity of the past. You don’t do away with it. You don’t abolish it. You don’t say it didn’t happen. You convert that energy into positivity.”
Our class was greatly inspired by Sachs’s passionate descriptions of the many ways African art has been integrated into the design and construction of South Africa’s Constitutional Court building. Two themes that resonated strongly among our group were Ubuntu and Sachs description of “justice under a tree.”
Ubuntu, is a Nuguni Buntu word which means, “I am what I am because of who we all are.” It is a reminder of our shared humanity, and carries a spirit of goodwill and respect towards others. The concept of ubuntu serves as a cornerstone for South Africa’s constitution’s heavy detail on equal protection under the law.
Equally inspiring was Sachs’s description of “justice under a tree” as an image of inspiration for the vision of the Court. In traditional African societies, people would meet under a tree to publicly solve disputes. As Sachs explains in the book Art and Justice: The Art of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, “the unifying theme of this building is the traditional form of participatory and transparent justice under a tree,” a symbol which encapsulates much of South Africa’s history and traditions. This concept reinforces a community-oriented approach, as Sachs elaborates that, “The tree protects the people, and they look after the tree.”
Through our class discussions, we chose to manifest these themes as physical objects of art that will be used to unite attendees through shared ideas and dialogue at the Colloquium. The themes added a new dimension of meaning to our coursework and informed our process for planning the event. To see more of the work we created, visit our facebook page and then attend the event!
My AU Arts Management colleagues and I are very excited for this rare opportunity to meet such an inspiring figure in the fields of social justice and arts advocacy. I hope that you will join us for this special event – please see below for more information or visit our event page here. And, if you are unable to attend the event, you can keep up with the conversation through Twitter using #AskAlbie!
The AU Arts Management Fall Colloquium will take place from 5:30 – 7:00 pm, November 18th, at the Washington College of Law. Attendance is free but registration is required. Please register to attend at:
Heather Koslov is a second year student in the AU Arts Management program and serves as this year’s Events Coordinator on the EALS committee.
Special thanks to Laura London for the information and text regarding Albie Sachs’s biography.
Photograph of “Perfect Paradise” by Johannes Maswanganyi (a work in the Court’s permanent art collection) from http://concourt.artvault.co.za/collection.php
Photograph of the South African Constitutional Court logo is from Art and Justice: The Art of the Constitutional Court of South Africa accessed at http://ellenpapciakrose.com/admin/assets/ellenpapciak-rose/Art&Justice_FewPages1_LR.pdf.
Albie Sachs quotes are from The South Africa Constitutional Court’s webpage (http://www.constitutionalcourt.org.za/site/thecourt/thelogo.htm) and the Project for Public Spaces’ Placemaking blog (http://www.pps.org/blog/lessons-from-south-africas-constitutional-court/)