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New rock artwork at SU’s Tygerberg Campus a symbol of diversity and change
Author: Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences/Fakulteit Geneeskunde en Gesondheidswetenskappe
Published: 02/05/2024

​​​Stellenbosch University (SU) unveiled a significant new art installation today at the entrance to the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences​' (FMHS) Clinical Building on the Tygerberg Campus. The imposing artwork, involving a three-ton slate stone, serves as a powerful symbol of the University's ongoing commitment to diversity, inclusivity, and addressing past injustices.

“The new artwork is a powerful symbol of our journey," says Dr Leslie van Rooi, Senior Director: Social Impact and Transformation at SU. “It embodies our rich linguistic tapestry, reflecting the very nature and purpose of our university community. It also acknowledges our past and the path we're forging towards a more inclusive future,"

The piece by acclaimed South African artist, Jenna Burchell, involves an historic stone repaired in the Japanese “Kintsukuroi" (golden joinery) style. The stone is also installed with Burchell's signature Songsmith technique, which emits a sound derived from the surface's radar echo, adding a layer of interactivity to the artwork. The installation extends beyond the central stone, and phrases in eleven official South African languages and Braille are engraved into the surrounding bricks in a kraal (corral) formation.

“We do not want to destroy our history, but we do want to show that something has changed," says FMHS Dean, Prof Elmi Muller. “Part of the change we needed, was the perception created when people enter our Faculty."

The stone was initially installed in 1974 with the official opening of the Clinical Building. It carried the Afrikaans inscription “'n beitel moet kan klip breek as hy 'n beitel is – N.P. van Wyk Louw" (“a chisel must be capable of breaking stone for it to be a chisel"), an extract from the poem “Die Beiteltjie" (“The Small Chisel") by the South African poet, N.P. van Wyk Louw.    

“In recent years, students, staff and visitors to the Faculty began questioning the nature, purpose and symbolism of the rock and its inscription," explains Van Rooi. “In this regard, it was decided to expand on the rock's story."

Showcasing South Africa's rich language diversity

SU embraces the diversity of the South African society and strives to advance multilingualism in its academic and social spaces. To this end, an inclusive redress process was launched in 2022 to ensure the stone represents the wider university community.

“The original stone only had an Afrikaans inscription, so the key focus was integrating the other eleven official languages," says Florence de Vries, visual redress project lead for the FMHS. “We achieved this by collecting phrases, sayings and idioms from students and staff across the Tygerberg Campus. These phrases were deliberated in 12 workshops, with a final phrase chosen for each language."

The stone is encircled by 12 phrases in South Africa's official languages, etched into the surrounding bricks in kraal (corral) formation. The original Afrikaans inscription from “Die Beiteltjie" remains included among the additions.

“The chosen phrases resonate with the Faculty's vision, focusing on themes of education, personal growth, and healing – apt concepts for an institution dedicated to lifelong learning and progress in health sciences," remarks De Vries.

Repairing fractures

The artwork was imbued with symbolism from the outset. In a ceremony before its removal, the three-ton stone was deliberately split in half with a chisel for the Kintsukuroi repair method to be applied by Burchell. The stone was then transported to her studio for the repair and installation of the Songsmith technique.

“Fracture and repair reveal moments of change and is an important part of my artistic process," explains Burchell. “In the tradition of Kintsukuroi, the repair serves a practical purpose while conveying a deeper meaning. It acknowledges that something has been broken and highlights it as an intrinsic part of the object's beauty, enriching its narrative.

“In terms of visual redress, highlighting the repair on the stone acknowledges our history without erasing it. We're essentially rebuilding the past alongside the present and future, ensuring each has its rightful place within this archive, this monument, this artwork."

The Songsmith method unveils, by means of ground-penetrating radar recording, the deep history concealed within the layers of earth beneath the stone. Integrating technology and sound into the sculpture connects it to the broader story of the stone's surroundings.

Muller sees the transformed artwork as a powerful symbol of unity. “Whereas the chisel fractured the original stone, the reconstructed piece symbolises the mending of broken parts. The golden thread coursing through the stone evokes the potential for transformation, even in something as seemingly immutable and rugged as stone. The sound installation adds a further layer of engagement, breathing fresh life into the artwork."​

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Caption: Dr Leslie van Rooi, Senior Director: Social Impact and Transformation with artist Jenna Burchell, FMHS Dean Prof Elmi Muller and Prof Nico Koopman, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel at the unveiling of the art installation.

 Credit: Stefan Els​