The Light Bulb Moment - The Artist's Concept
By Sue Valentine
Although Cissie Gool had a reputation for being an attention-grabber, her commitment to the poor of Cape Town was undeniable, says artist Ruth Sacks, and this is reflected in the memorial to the "Jewel of District Six".
"I'm not trying to shout out anything, I'm just trying to make something that quietly affirms the political career of a woman who did a great deal," says Cape Town artist Ruth Sacks when asked about her design.
In the face of a character as charismatic, controversial, vibrant - and physically beautiful - as Cissie Gool, Sacks chose to focus on her commitment to improving the lives of Cape Town's common people.
Sacks says that although Gool was criticised for being an attention-seeker and for not having a clear political philosophy, she was firmly committed to representing the city's poorer people.
"From my research," says Sacks, "it seemed that, sure, Cissie Gool wanted attention; I think we all do in our own way, but she was better at getting it! And what became very clear is that she was hugely ethical. If she switched political leanings it was because she would do absolutely anything to make a difference for the common man, and I honestly believe that."
Sure, Cissie Gool wanted attention; I think we all do in our own way, but she was better at getting it!
Sacks's installation comprises a series of 17 concrete bollards of different heights. "They can be used to sit on, play on; they can be stepping stones or they can be podiums," she explains.
Each bollard is inscribed with text documenting Gool's political contribution. These include gathering money to take 2 000 children from her District Six constituency to see the Walt Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for the first time, or fighting for a wage increase for firemen, or for the right of people of colour to serve as traffic wardens.
"These things weren't really newspaper headlines, or wouldn't go down in the history books, but at the time they made a lot of difference," says Sacks.
Part of Sacks's inspiration was drawn simply from walking the same streets and passing the same buildings that formed part of Gool's world - places that, coincidentally, Sacks also passes on her way to and from her studio.
The inner-city dental clinic that Gool established is one example. "Cissie was hugely proud of it," says Sacks. "She thought it was one of the greatest things she had done for Cape Town was to make sure there was a dental clinic. I really don't think it matters that it's closed down now; it made an enormous difference at the time, which is the best any of us can hope to do."
Sacks is well aware that monuments are temporary too. "Even a concrete monument is not going to last forever," she says. "After about a year it won't be noticed because it won't be a new thing anymore and it will be chipped in 30 to 50 years' time."
Choosing the text to be engraved onto the bollards was central to Sacks' development of the installation. The chance to integrate the text into the work was one of the aspects she particularly enjoyed about the commission.
"First we sourced the sentences that I wanted to memorialise and then the form follows the text, so it's very much a history project, which I really liked. The text is given full credibility," says Sacks.
The process of creating each bollard began with a clay positive - a piece of clay made on the wheel to the correct size. Using aluminium lettering, each letter was incised onto the bollard from which a plaster mould was then made that could be discarded afterwards. Once the mould was complete, the concrete was poured in and later, the mould broken off.
The reason for doing it this way, Sacks explains, was mostly to keep costs down - the clay could be re-used and plaster is cheap. This was a concern, given that each of the 17 bollards is different.
"The text is different and each bollard is a slightly different size," says Sacks. "So to make a more lasting mould was pointless and prohibitively expensive."
Sacks prefers to play down her installation and describes it as "furniture" for the city, designed to blend in and to be useful; not to be attention-seeking or confrontational.
A lot of my work is quite acerbic or cutting but I don't think this is the place for that.
"A lot of my work is quite acerbic or cutting, but I don't think this is the place for that," says Sacks. When asked whether Gool herself wasn't quite acerbic, Sacks laughs in mutual recognition.
"I like Cissie enormously," Sacks admits, but believes that such a tone is not necessary in this piece.
"It's a low monument; it's not trying to be great art. It's more of an architectural intervention, in the line of [Italian-American architect and installation artist] Vito Acconci's later work."