A bronze rabbit tucked inside the ear of a recently unveiled Nelson Mandela statue in Pretoria prompted South African authorities to order its removal in the interest of preserving the statue’s integrity.
News media in the U.S., U.K, Africa and beyond reported on the incident.
The 29.5-foot sculpture of Nelson Mandela, considered the biggest of the South African anti-apartheid leader, carried a tiny, barely-visible sculpted rabbit tucked inside one of the bronze ears, Associated Press reports, according to BusinessWeek.
The giant work with arms outstretched, stands outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria, unveiled Dec. 16 after Mandela’s Dec, 5 death at age 95. It symbolizes Mandela’s devotion to inclusiveness, according to AP.
Earlier this week, South Africa’s Beeld newspaper quoted sculpture artists Andre Prinsloo and Ruhan Janse van Vuuren saying they added the rabbit as a trademark after officials would not allow them to engrave their signatures on the statue’s trousers. They said the rabbit represented the pressure of finishing the sculpture on time. Haas — the word for rabbit in the Afrikaans language — also means haste.
The sculptors apologized for any offense to those who felt the rabbit was disrespectful toward the legacy of Mandela, said Paul Mashatile, arts and culture minister.
“We accept their apology and that their intentions were honorable,” department spokesman Josias Pila said in a statement, according to IndependentOnline.
The government appointed Koketso Growth, a heritage development company, to manage the statue project. Its CEO, Dali Tambo, son of anti-apartheid activist Oliver Tambo, told AP he was furious when he heard about the rabbit, and said it must be removed.
“That statue isn’t just a statue of a man, it’s the statue of a struggle, and one of the most noble in human history,” Tambo said. “So it’s belittling, in my opinion, if you then take it in a jocular way and start adding rabbits in the ear.”
It would be, he said, like depicting U.S. President Barack Obama with a mouse in his nose.
Similar jokes have been played by some of the greatest artists who ever lived, wrote one blogger at TheGuardian. “Michelangelo is the godfather of artistic insults. His statue of Lorenzo de’ Medici at San Lorenzo in Florence discreetly rests its arm on a money box: this easily ignored detail, half concealed by a monster mask that is itself troubling, is Michelangelo’s dig at the obscene wealth of the Medici family.”
Tambo said the artists, who belong to South Africa’s white Afrikaner minority, were chosen for their talent but also in part because the project was a multiracial effort in keeping with Mandela’s principle of reconciliation, according to the AP report. He said their signatures could be added on the statue in a discreet place such as Mandela’s heel.
Readers at South Africa’s IndependentOnline had a lot to say about the rabbit. Here are some of their comments:
“I don’t think the sculptors intended any disrespect, moreover I believe Mandela himself would have been amused. A rabbit is usually portrayed as a meek and timid animal, so a rabbit in the ear of Mandela’s statue can be seen as Mandela protecting and championing the rights of the underdog.”
“I think this can pass as artistic licence. Let’s move on. No decent piece of art is without a signature of some sort.”
“A bloody storm in a teacup! An artist always signs his work, this is just a load of nonsense, let it stay!”
“I’m still trying to figure out how this is deemed newsworthy.”
“It’s generally accepted that all artwork commissioned or not will have a trademark/signature of artist. The fact that they have hidden their signature from public view just proves that they didn’t want to blatant about it but still leave their mark.”