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Bloody Elephants

by Samora Chapman / 04.06.2012

In the wake of Zuma’s Spear saga, Durban had its own little art fiasco last week, when someone splashed Andries Botha’s controversial elephant sculptures with a lick of blood-red paint.

I’m a real modern man. I get my news from street poles while I travel in my limousine and listen to the radio. On Tuesday morning I was driving through town, lost in reverie when a headline caught my attention: “Durban’s Jumbo’s painted red!”

So I shed six bucks at the next robot and clutched the newspaper tight, preparing myself for a morning dose of mass hysteria.

The cutting edge reporting had me enraptured: “The big question was why someone had decided to smear the sculptures, apparently on Sunday evening.”

Andries Botha attempted to break down the complex symbolism of The Act: “The person might have been trying to make a creative or environmental statement to emphasise the need for the city to prevent further vandalism of the sculpture.”

Facebook comments on a page dedicated to the sculpture crooned: “The elephants, the spear. Still a long way to go to get closer to the freedom charter,” and my favourite lament: ‘speared… making the poor elephant bleed now.”

Municipal spokesperson Thabo Mofokeng gave this reassuring statement: “We do not know at this stage who did it or why. An investigation will be launched.”

I was lucky enough to meet the artist that ‘speared’ Andries Botha’s elephants. There was a purple sky and an orange moon and we spoke in whispers. “Why did you do it?” I asked. He tried to answer but the words wouldn’t come. “I can’t tell you,” he eventually said. “There’s too many people listening, too many eyes watching.” He then slinked off into the night, merging with shadows like The Cat that Walks Alone… leaving me to try and decipher the mystery myself.

As the concerned citizens screamed “bloody murder” and “protect the poor elephants,” I have a feeling The Cat that Walks Alone was thinking “fuck you! You missed the point. Again.”

In an attempt to deepen my understanding of the saga I went down to the site to experience the artwork myself. Because that’s the point of public art right… it’s for everybody to appreciate, to communicate with, to interpret in their own way.

I walked through the inner city at around 10pm with my man Lucky for companionship. Scattered in the night were the usual vampires… sucking glue out of milk cartens like wild-eyed lunatics, cooking rats on a fire in the middle of the highway and even catching some sleep like real humans.

Isn’t it funny that a pile of rubble in the shape of an elephant is at the centre of attention this week and not the refugees camping in the depraved tropical paradise surrounding it?

Anyway, so I navigated the war zone with my man Lucky sticking close and eventually there it was… yes the great elephant had been slain. It was surely dead. I could tell by the amount of blood spilling across the concrete. But then I heard one last breath rasping out of the severed trunk.

And I think I understood why The Cat that Walks Alone had done it. He made the elephant bleed to give it life… more than to signify its death. In allowing the sculpture to bleed, the sculpture is no longer a sculpture, or a symbol owned by the IFP, contested by the ANC, or the intellectual property of the artist, or the physical property of the city that has paid a couple of million for it… the sculpture is an animal created by gee-oh-dee and owned by mother nature herself.

Surely the blood is not the issue here. It is not the source of the fire, but the smoke signal. If we had a family of three majestic elephants at the entrance to our city, sculpted by a world-renowned artist… they would be loved and smiled upon by the people of Durban. The elephants would not be bleeding. They would be standing tall, a symbol of family, unity, wisdom and freedom.

So I put on a mask and took a photo like a hunter posing next to my prise kill. Who knows… maybe I slayed the beast myself.

*All images © Samora Chapman.

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