A conversation with artist Marco Cianfanelli

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By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Oct. 3, 2013) — South African artist Marco Cianfanelli created “Shadow Boxing” to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s boxing roots.

Prediction: The 2013 sculpture will become iconic in its own right.

The African icon’s sports interests have been recognized from time to time, including his role in helping South Africa rise from the dark period of apartheid, when as president he preached reconciliation for the rugby team that went on to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup (brilliantly told in the film “Invictus”).

In a 21st century addition to the understanding of how boxing played a role in Mandela’s life, Cianfanelli’s Shadow Boxing, located in Johannesburg, has sparked interest from media outlets, sports fans and various others around the world.

“I did not enjoy the violence of boxing so much as the science of it,” Nelson Mandela has been quoted as saying. “I was intrigued by how one moved one’s body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy both to attack and retreat, how one paced oneself over a match. Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, color and wealth are irrelevant. When you are circling your opponent, probing his strengths and weaknesses, you are not thinking of his color or social status.”

The project can be summed up this way, Cianfanelli offered, in a prepared document:

Shadow Boxing
A sculptural translation of photographs of Nelson Mandela, by Robert Gosani, in collaboration with Bailey’s African History Archive.
Medium: Painted mild steel
Scale: Height from 5 to 6 meters.
Gosani’s image of Mandela sparring is translated into sculptural form through the use of painted and perforated plates of steel. From a distance the black and white halftone effect is evident, creating grey tonality, which further layers the exploration into the contextual history of Law, objectivity and Justice. Moreover, this underlines the functionality and rights of the public, within this space outside the courts.
Thematic & Conceptual Motivation: The thematic motivation for this proposal stems from the photograph by Bob Gosani, of Nelson Mandela sparring on the rooftop, as seen in the exhibit at Chancellor house. The reason for this starting point is the significance of boxing as a potential metaphor of the legal system, specifically in South Africa during the 1950s, as well as a representation of Mandela and other pivotal figures (Walter Sisulu, Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo) during this specific and significant time in South Africa’s history.
Boxing is a sport and a physical contest, an ordered and controlled system of combat and contestation. The parameters of boxing consist of rules of engagement, for which the ring is the context or field. The courts (Magistrates Court) are the context of the legal system, where prosecution and defense are metered out according to the law.
Mandela boxing is symbolic of the fight for equality, dignity and human rights, through the vehicle of the South African legal system. Given the law under the newly emerged Nationalist Government and apartheid, the notion of the boxing ring is ironic as the champions of the struggle were effectively boxing outside of the ring or at least, a ring that was distorted and biased in its nature.
The failure of the legal system to represent all the people of South Africa and inevitably led to the armed struggle and the end of non-violent resistance.
The sculpture serves as a symbolic reminder of the potential for disparity between Law and Justice and the need for transparency and accountability in the service of the rights of all citizens and residents…

In a recent email exchange, Cianfanelli detailed his project and how it came to fruition.

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What inspired you to begin the project? And was it a single moment in time that sparked the idea? Did you have the general idea before seeing the 1952 photograph from Bob Gosani?

The Johannesburg Development Agency invited Artists to submit ideas in September 2011 for a sculpture outside the Magistrate’s court. At the Site briefing I noticed Bob Gosani’s Image of Mandela sparring in the exhibit at Chancellor House (which is the building where Mandela & Tambo had their legal practice. It is opposite the Court and it is now a museum). I realized that this image was the perfect metaphor to speak about a particular aspect of South Africa’s history.

When and where did you first see Gosani’s photo? Was it in a book, for example, that you had thumbed through many, many times?

I honestly can’t remember – its one of those popular images you just know about.

How long did it take from start to finish to complete the project?

The model-making process took a long time to get the right sculptural translation and so the whole project was completed over a period of about a year.

Along the way, was Mr. Mandela personally involved in providing feedback or approval for the way things looked? Or did he have someone come look at it to give it his “stamp of approval”?

No unfortunately he wasn’t, as he is aging and his health has been an issue. The design was approved through the Mandela Foundation and the JDA.

Have you watched a lot boxing fights and/or films to gain knowledge about a boxer’s techniques, movements and persona in the ring? Or was that a conscious part of this particular project?

I don’t watch a lot and I was a useless boxer as a kid (no sense of strategy) but I understand enough to have a lot of respect for the dynamics of the sport and what it takes.

What was most appealing about this project to you?

For me this project is very special because of its rich context: The history of Mandela’s role in the legal system and the struggle, the work of Bob Gosani and his growing up in Ferreirasdorp, the context public space outside of the Magistrate’s Court, as well as the context of the law and its significance in South Africa’s history and its legacy. Its not often that so many narratives come together in one moment.

What do you hope Shadow Boxing’s legacy as a symbol of a time in Mandela’s life will be in South Africa and beyond?

To respect others but to stand up for your rights and assert your rights to self-expression and the role of public space in this regard.

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Can you share some general feedback you’ve received about the project that most pleases you — perhaps a letter or phone calls, some choice words that you distinctly recall?

Like the sculpture Release at the Mandela Capture Site, I have received many supportive responses for Shadow Boxing but it in honoring the work of photographer Bob Gosani, it was special for me to meet his wife Tilly at the unveiling and to hear of the value that the work had for her.

What is your current primary project? Can you share some basic details on what you’re working on artistically?

I have just completed a large suspended sculptural installation about Africa, called Seed. It is over 30 meters tall, suspended from the ceiling in a 42 meter high atrium. It creates a 3-dimensional shape of Africa and it is pigmented with soil collected from various regions on the continent.

As a result of the work I have done on Nelson Mandela, I have been invited to propose ideas for various projects around the world, from Tunisia and India, Abu Dhabi to Brazil and Australia.

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To see more of Cianfanelli’s work, visit http://marcocianfanelli.com/

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