How RIACT acquired the fence

The story of how we acquired the fence goes back to 2009, when Chris Swift was completing his final year at Michaelis, UCT School of Fine Art. Chris was using discarded material to create art as a comment on environmental issues brought about by inadequate socio-political policies in the developing world. The art pieces he created would later win him the Michaelis prize and position him as the top student of the year. In March 2010 he went on to win South Africa’s biggest contemporary art competition – the Spier Contemporary 2010.

Chris’ continuous search for discarded materials made him acutely aware of things being thrown away, and so it was that on an educational visit to Robben Island he noticed the historical prison fencing bound for a landfill. It had been replaced with new fencing as part of a revamp for the 20th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela. After establishing its significance, Chris arranged to rescue this valuable heritage to the mainland, where he spent the better part of 3 months processing the material.

The majority of the saved fencing became an integral part of his graduate exhibition ‘The Trojan Horse’ as a 7m installation entitled ‘Aspire’. The work was chosen for the Spier Contemporary 2010 and re-erected as ‘Nelson’s Column’ due to its positioning outside the Cape Town city hall where Nelson Mandela gave his freedom speech after being released from 27 years of incarceration.

After the exhibition, Chris realised that the fencing still had a grander purpose. Through his art it had been able to transfer a message to those who were willing and able to listen, but there was more it could do. Chris wanted the fence to come full circle, from holding captive the champions of liberty and democracy such as Nelson Mandela, to freeing ordinary people from the prison of poverty.

With this vision he formed RIACT to make that vision a reality. RIACT is now responsible for the fence and creates artifacts from it for sale. The manufacture of these artifacts creates jobs and upskills those who have been held captive by their circumstances. In this way the original fencing from the Robben Island prison, rather than rusting away in a landfill, is helping to create jobs and move South Africa towards its bright future.

Below are photos from the various stages of the fence aquisition:

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