Standing nearly six meters tall, between Chancellor house and the Johannesburg Magistrates court on Fox street, is the arresting pop-style sculpture Shadow boxing. Marco Cianfanelli’s layered steel sculpture derives its imagery from a 1952 photograph of Nelson Mandela, sparring with Jerry Moloi, captured by famed Drum photographer Bob Gosani.
The sculpture was commissioned by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) with the assistance of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and the Bailey’s African History Archive.
Mandela and Tambo Attorneys, the first black law practice in Johannesburg, was originally opened in Chancellor House in the 1950’s. Now renovated, the building is a heritage site and acts as a museum, archiving and displaying this history. In the window, Gosani’s photograph is exhibited, and it was Cianfanelli’s serendipitous encounter with this window display, that captured his imagination on a site visit.
It struck him that the idea of boxing is a great metaphor for the legal system. A notion echoed in Mandela’s written reflection: “I did not enjoy the violence of boxing so much as the science of it. 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.”
It is this science that defines so much of what happens within the confines of the courtroom, and the legal system generally.
Nelson Mandela was to become intimately acquainted with the inside of a courtroom in his lifetime, both as an attorney and as an accused, and his attack and defence stance here is a tribute to his fight for a free South Africa.
The concrete plinth that supports the sculpture is embossed with Mandela’s words: “In the ring, rank, age, colour, and wealth are irrelevant” – here, a parallel is drawn between boxing and true democratic law, referencing their unique capability to level the playing field.
The 2-dimensional image is rendered in 3-dimensional steel plates, laser cut and layered. The muted colour palette of the painted steel is a tribute to the black-and-white grayscale photograph. Cianfanelli uses red as a spot colour, to make it more pronounced and also to echo the colour used on Chancellor House. The red accents and reductive, graphic quality of the artwork, puts it in the vein of a populist icon. It is a bit of a pop-play on Warhol’s gun-slinging Elvis Presley.