Cianfanelli’s The Dying Slave is a starkly poignant reminder of the uncomfortable truth that the early history of colonialism in South Africa is inherently bound with slavery, with the institution of slavery arriving with the first Dutch settlement of the Cape.
The Dutch East India Company forbade the enslavement of the indigenous population, and the slaves had to be imported from elsewhere. Its monopoly of the trade routes to the east enabled the Company to acquire slaves from various societies in the Indian Ocean world. Between 1652 and abolition in 1807 some 60,000 slaves were brought to the Cape, from Mozambique or the East African hinterland; from Madagascar and from India and the East Indies.
Thus the Cape became not just a society in which some people were slaves, but also a fully-fledged slave society in which slavery was central to the social, economic and legal institutions. As the boundaries of the Cape Colony expanded beyond the immediate vicinity of Table Bay, slaves were put to work on the wine and wheat farms of the South-Western Cape. In effect, the colonial economy could not function without the use of slave labour, and therefore slave-ownership was widespread.
The most important social feature of slave societies is that they were polarised between people who were slaves and those who were not. Slaves were also defined by their race, and although the VOC did not institute a codified form of racial classification, the fact is that slaves were black and slave owners were white. Thus, colonial South Africa was from the very start a society structured along racial lines, in which black people occupied a subordinate position.
In this work, Cianfanelli asks us to consider these uncomfortable issues agents the majestic beauty of its surroundings, reminding us that we’re all responsible for carrying the weight of public memory, and that beauty and abundance come at a cost. The reference to Michelangelo’s famous Dying Slave adds a poetic resonance in this context. This partly-unfinished figure, which seems to emerge fully-formed from its marble block, was created between 1513-16 for the tomb of Pope Julius II, and is now in the Louvre along with its companion piece, The Rebellious Slave.
Michelangelo’s two slaves present binary views of the notion of slavery, and by extension, psychological entrapment – the rebellious slave struggling against the ties that bind him, struggling to be free; the dying slave bound up in himself with an intense expression on his face, his eyes closed, as he quietly capitulates to the ultimate release – the freedom of body and spirit. As such, it has long been celebrated as a celebration of the triumph of individualism and the resilience of the human spirit. Cianfanelli thus evokes the long shadows both of a specific colonial past, and of art history, and in so doing offers us a way of negotiating difficult questions about identity, memory, and belonging. At once a fixed image, an installation of grave-like markers, and a interactive public space, Cianfanelli’s work invites us to celebrate our freedoms while remembering the immeasurable cost at which they were procured.
Art, and more specifically public art, has the potential to function as a powerful connector, a meaningful and integral part of contemporary public life, helping us to define and expand our common ground. Art is also a vision of possibilities and potential – this is something that Spier has recognised, and continues to promote in various ways, not least in supporting work of this nature. As Harriet F. Senie notes in her book on contemporary public sculpture, “[Art becomes public] when that vision is communicated to as large an audience as possible because then it does more than define our common ground. It becomes an actual and symbolic connector not only between diverse members of a single community, but a vital link to the past the future”.
* Shortened version of Dr Frederico Freschi’s opening address at the unveiling of The Dying Slave 30 August 2012