Sunday, February 1, 2009

Just Art?

“There’s a music in ideas, a poetry in justice.”

So said Justice Albie Sachs last Wednesday, as the Nasher Museum of Art hosted him for a presentation and discussion entitled “The Place of Art in Rendering Justice.” The design of South Africa’s Constitutional Court building was the focus of the event. Srinivas Aravamudan, soon-to-be Dean of Humanities, gave a thought-provoking introduction. Following a 19-minute film, professor Catherine Admay questioned Sachs about his work and his involvement with the construction of the Constitutional Court. Members of the audience also were able to ask questions at the end.

The Constitutional Court building is located in Johannesburg, on the site of an Apartheid-era prison. In creating the building, designers deliberately tried to incorporate the site’s horrible history, instead of burying it; 150,000 bricks from old prison buildings were used in the new structure. By referencing prison conditions, the building hopes to memorialize the suffering that occurred during the Apartheid, and to prevent it from happening again.

But at the same time, the building aims to uplift and inspire. Whereas South Africans might have feared to enter an Apartheid-era courthouse, Sachs said, the new Constitutional Court is welcoming, august but not austere. It features beautiful artwork and abundant natural light. Artists from around the country donated their works in the interest of participating in South Africa’s cultural history, and beautifying what could have been a formidable structure. [ Take a virtual tour. ]

“[We thought] the art should be integrated, not applied, into the building,” Sachs said. “Art requires intelligence. Justice requires emotion.”

Originally a lawyer, Sachs was an anti-Apartheid fighter and activist with the African National Conference. A Constitutional Court Justice since 1996, Sachs was instrumental in creating the Bill of Rights for the South African Constitution after Apartheid. Since then, Sachs has written numerous articles about the importance of human rights and the legal basis for protecting them.

While at Duke, Sachs visited three undergraduate classes, including two of Professor Admay’s. Sachs also was interviewed on video about his life as part of Duke’s Living History Program.

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