That strangely stirring little tug of patriotism can make itself felt at the oddest of times, such as when a TV ad captures the funnier side of the South African zeitgeist, and you smile all the same to be a part of it. Or it can be more momentous, like when the national anthem is sung at the start of a teeth-clenching game of rugby. Try standing on a windswept hill in Port Elizabeth – or Nelson Mandela Bay, as the city’s also officially known – in the late afternoon sun as a group of soldiers proudly salutes the biggest flag you’ve ever seen, flying aloft the tallest flagpole in the country, before bringing it down for the night.
As the national flag makes its ceremonious descent, the magnitude of its 9x12m scale is suddenly better appreciated, no more so than when the soldiers valiantly grapple with the elements to coax it into its nocturnal casing. Amid the pomp and ceremony is a visible sense of triumph, and it’s this same combination of solemnity and feel-good humanity that lingers in the air around Nelson Mandela Bay’s Route 67 public-art project.
Conceptualised as an art journey celebrating Nelson Mandela’s 67 years of dedication to SA’s freedom, an eventual 67 public artworks will be set along a meandering route through the city, culminating at the 45-metre-high flagpole set on the Donkin Reserve and representing the point of completion in the process of democracy. Route 67 is also at the heart of a greater urban regeneration programme that is steadily unfolding, revitalising a CBD that once looked set for certain decay. But thanks to the vision and focus of project driver, the Mandela Bay Development Agency (MBDA), in partnership with the local municipality, and their focus on implementation, there’s a renewed sense of optimism for the city’s future.
Route 67 is also a celebration of PE’s rich history and culture, with the engaging walk taking in landmark buildings and monuments from its colonial past, including an imposing marble statue of Queen Victoria, and the Campanile, a bell tower built in 1920 to commemorate the centenary of the arrival of the British settlers, where the tour begins. Many artworks deliberately create dialogue between the old and the new, and along the way are pointers documenting events during the struggle era within the 67-year time frame.
While several of the pieces along the route are currently still in progress, the Donkin Reserve section is complete and this public space, which is dominated by the Donkin Memorial pyramid and historical lighthouse, contains a rousing selection of works by both established and emerging artists. Amid Anthony Harris and Konrad Geel’s breathtaking ‘Voting Line’ piece – life-size, laser-cut steel figures in a symbolic voting line – and a magnificent collaborative mosaic piece stretching from flagpole to lighthouse, are works by renowned Eastern Cape sculptor Anton Momberg and artist Mxolisi ‘Dolla’ Sapeta. Even schoolchildren have contributed, designing a series of laser-cut lights set about the space. Dorelle Sapere, MBDA’s development and planning manager, is quick to explain that job creation, and the enabling of creative talents who don’t have the usual means to make a living from their art, is part of the project’s objective.
Most importantly for a public space, Donkin Hill is accessible and inviting – schoolchildren use some of the pieces as seats while eating their lunch, teenagers carve along curving pathways on their skateboards, while interested pedestrians take a closer look at the sculptures. It’s exactly as intended by the MBDA, which worked closely with commissioning and implementation agents The Trinity Session, to create a space with relevance to all residents of the city.
For more information, visit mbda.co.za.