Tragedy of the Rainbow Warriors (after Jannis Kounellis and Francois Pienaar)

Lay’s chip packets, coat stand, Springbok supporters jerseys, shelf, oil lamp

A rendition of Jannis Kounellis’ ‘Tragedia Civile’ (Italy, 1975), drawing on the history of Springbok rugby hero Francois Pienaar to reimagine the work for contemporary South Africa.

The title derives from the front page of The Sunday Independent, 25 June 1995, which features an image of Nelson Mandela handing Pienaar the Rugby World Cup trophy—an image that has become iconic in South Africa as a symbol of reconciliation and unity—and a headline referring to the country’s hopeful nickname, ‘The Rainbow Nation’.

In Kounellis’ ‘Tragedia Civile’ (Civil Tragedy), gold leaf lines the wall recalling in a commentator’s words “the past golden age in contrast to the disordered and compromised present”. In front of the wall is a coat rack with overcoat and hat, illustrating the limitations of the individual in relation to the demands of their position in history. A paraffin lamp (then already antiquated), on a shelf, lights the scene. 

Here, though, there is no artist’s coat or hat: instead two Springbok rugby supporters jerseys—donned by South Africans in the shared patriotic ecstasy of World Cup victory celebrations—hang stiffly from a coat stand. Further, the wall is not covered in gold leaf here but plastered with flattened chip packets, recalling the flood of international consumer goods following end of Apartheid and the lifting of sanctions. Lay’s Lightly Salted came to represent a new global sophistication. Pienaar, the face of South African unity alongside Nelson Mandela via the 1995 Rugby World Cup victory for South Africa, was also to become the face of Lay’s in their South African advertising. The paraffin lamp from Kounellis’ work remains, but is stripped of its nostalgic value by an awareness of the crisis of energy supply and the depths of poverty faced in the country.

Retrospectively sentiments from Nelson Mandela’s inauguration speech in 1994 are bittersweet:

the mind and soul have been freed to fulfil themselves

humanity has taken us back into its bosom

The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come

The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement!