The Light Bulb Moment: The Artist's concept
By Gillian Anstey
Artist Marco Cianfanelli's concrete sculpture comprises concentric contours featuring the shapes of a chimpanzee's head, the Taung child's skull and the skull of a modern human.
The Sunday Times Heritage Project commission emerged at an opportune moment for Marco Cianfanelli. At the time he was working on a sculpture depicting modern man going back in time for the Forum Homini Boutique Hotel at the Cradle of Humankind, the heritage site north-west of Johannesburg which incorporates the Sterkfontein caves.
He chose to work in concrete, as the medium was best suited to receive the impressions he planned. It was also appropriate because the Taung skull had been found in stone, which had once been a soft liquid but had then hardened.
His sculpture comprises concentric contours of various skulls and is set flat on the ground. The outside circle is in the shape of a chimpanzee's head, the middle circle is shaped like the Taung child's skull and in the centre is modern man's skull.
Cianfanelli said the proportions between the skulls are not to scale. He used a computer to morph the shape of the Taung skull with that of modern man's. And ultimately all the skulls make a comment on the shape of the African continent, to reflect that humans originated here.
He said his choice of a design of layers of skull shapes had also been influenced by the fact that Raymond Dart had chipped away at rock with a knitting needle to uncover the skull of the Taung child.
The outside circle is in the shape of a chimpanzee's head, the middle circle is shaped like the Taung child's skull and in the centre is modern man's skull
He began with a conceptual drawing. Then he made a model of the sculpture and used that to digitally program the shape of the shutter, or mould, he needed.
Parts of the shutter were laser-cut by specialists and parts were hand-cut by Cianfanelli. Then the shutter was put together "like one assembles a model". The next step was to pour concrete into it and add steel reinforcements to give it strength.
He kept the concrete in the shutter wet by pouring water onto it and covering it with plastic, and it stayed in the mould for more than a week. "Ideally you would put the sculpture into a bath of water but this one is too big," Cianfanelli said of his work, which is almost 2m wide.
The aim was for the water to cure the concrete. Within a couple of hours the liquid hardens and then for the following seven days, and even for the rest of its lifespan, the concrete strengthens.
He then separated the sculpture from the mould and patched up some of the air bubbles and blisters that are inevitably formed when one pours concrete.
The two parts of the sculpture, front and back, were then waxed to await installation on site at the Origins Centre at Wits University. The waxing adds a slight skin, which deepens the colour, adds a polished feel and prevents possible staining.
Cianfanelli then decided to add an additional part to his sculpture after it had been installed. This unexpected element takes the form of a laser-cut metal detail added to the centre contour of modern man's skull.
"I just thought it finished it well," said Cianfanelli. "It also gave me an opportunity to include the feather motif in the skull, a response to the international announcement in February 2006 that the Taung child was killed by an eagle. Adding the feather linked the sculpture to contemporary findings about the origin of humankind, which I thought was pretty cool."
The surrounding area has been landscaped to enhance the artwork's effect. The landscaping, by award-winning landscape architect Patrick Watson, is in keeping with the savannah effect he has created outside the entrance to the Origins Centre.