Public art meets history's heart

- Lesley Perkes and Monna Mokoena of AAW, Art Project Management, were commissioned by the Sunday Times to manage the artists and the artworks - from concept to installation as memorials - on this project. Here they talk about their experience.

Over the past two years, as South Africans have walked through familiar environments from Ixopo to Queenstown, from Soweto to inner-city Joburg, Durban and Cape Town, they have probably noticed some subtle changes.

As the country catches 2010 fever, each city is furiously altering its landscapes in preparation for a vast party. But there is another subtle aspect to our changing environment: the installation of a series of poignant public memorials created to inspire South Africans to reflect on where we've come from and where we hope to go.

Contracted to run the public art aspect of The Sunday Times Heritage Project, AAW project management has, since 2005, taken the stories provided by the newspaper, selected well-known and emerging professional artists to develop briefs into concepts, and managed the fabrication and installation of each artwork-memorial.

To date, we have created 20 street memorials that mark the most touching of South Africa's stories. By the end of the multimillion rand project, there will be more than 35 new landmarks in the country's streets.

We were really inspired by the opportunity to frame the project as both a heritage trail and a showcase for contemporary South African public art. It has been fantastic for our sector, inspiring debate about the nature of public art and heritage, and the merits of - size versus volume, geographic spread versus how far back you have to crane your neck.

A key factor in the process is the Sunday Times's innovative, intimate and surprising approach. They've taken care not to ride roughshod over other more pressing needs in the poorer communities and have shown a real aversion to anything remotely monumental or intimidating - there are no big men on bronze horses here.

When we first heard about the project we liked the idea that the Sunday Times wanted to permanently mark specific places that had a relationship with important South African stories in an emotional way. We recommended art because of this emotional intent, as making art, especially public work, is so definitively passionate.

Each artwork has been an exception to the rule, a learning curve and an adventure - a story in itselfAlthough the logistics of making the pieces involve the same pressures as a building job: labour, materials, technical plans - the feelings people invest in art are radically different. We started with the briefs from the Sunday Times - stories in our history about newsmakers and exceptional moments, sometimes gleeful, sometimes tragic.

Then we had to face the reality of our seething urban landscape, fraught with neglect and fear of criminality. Our major obstacles centred on the need to look after sensitive artworks in places where such neglect seemed to reign - which brought another whole set of emotions into the picture.

The project has presented an opportunity for lesser-known as well as established artists to play a part in distilling the essence of stories into permanent, public artworks, creating a new stage for new histories. AAW has been in constant dialogue with both the artist at the centre of each process, helping to develop inspiring narratives, and the people for whom the project is made; passers-by, tourists and heritage hounds.

While there have been times when we've thought we were crazy and should have gone an easier, more off-the-shelf route, every time an artwork has been installed, the sense of doing something significant, being part of a magnificent historic story, has made up for pain, for untold stories, for plans made at the last minute. We can't pretend that any of us understood the extent of the complexities we were letting ourselves in for when we started the project, and the Sunday Times has to be commended for having the confidence to enable the unique, laboratory that the project has become.

Conditions and possibilities have varied hugely from place to place and from piece to piece. Each artwork has been an exception to the rule, a learning curve and an adventure - a story in itself. A story to tell when we are old.