Book review: Eliza Garnsey. The Justice of Visual Art: Creative State-Building in Times of Political Transition. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Halfway through the book, Eliza Garnsey quotes a clerk from the United States: “Art and justice perform different functions which often strive towards similar goals, especially when the goal is healing or transformation” (epigraph to chapter 6). In her summarizing conclusion, she asserts that her book develops a “unique theory of art as visual jurisprudence” (p.  209). Somewhere between these two annunciations, the book develops its strength through a detailed analysis of two case studies related to South Africa’s coming to terms with its apartheid’s past: a contextual and conceptual analysis of, first, the inclusion of the visual arts in South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitutional Court in Johannesburg; second, the representation of art and artists in the South African Pavilion at the 2013 International Art Biennale in Venice, Italy. Although her descriptive and original analysis may not quite amount to a new theory of “art as visual jurisprudence” (or, as she puts it elsewhere, “a novel conception of visual jurisprudence” [p. 3]), it is an engaging and innovative study at the intersection of visual art and transitional justice.

Garnsey, a scholar of international relations, brings into conversation the political messaging that can be achieved through a dialogical confluence of architectural design and art display (Part I, on the South African Constitutional Court). In Part II (on South African artists represented at the 2013 Biennale in Venice), she describes the ability and agency of artists to visually articulate past injustices while imagining alternative commitments toward justice. While these two foci carry the weight of her work, a few detours in the book divert the reader’s attention. Among those are, in Part I, a 12-page, detailed timeline on how the design for the Constitutional Court evolved between 1994 and 2014 and, in Part II, a lengthy introduction to the history and spatial arrangement of the Biennale which includes another detailed timeline of 17 pages about South Africa’s changing relationship to the Biennale between 1993 and 2013. Although these detours might be welcome by some readers as background information on institutional politics and cultural diplomacy, they distract from her overall aspiration to articulate a theory of “visual jurisprudence” (p. 2) that can emerge when engaging the relationship between visual art and transitional justice.

A few years ago, I had a chance to visit Constitution Hill in Johannesburg and I was, like Garnsey and many other (international) visitors, struck by the location. Sandwiched between two distinct urban neighborhoods (a poverty-stricken district on one side and, on the other, an urban renewal neighborhood with galleries and coffee shops), the new post-apartheid Court is built on the grounds of an old prison which used to hold people opposing South Africa’s apartheid state and race laws, including Nelson Mandela. While the remaining prison structures are now a museum, the new court building adjacent to it is designed as a welcoming, open space. Garnsey describes in vivid detail some of the architectural choices that signal an intentional openness in the service of state building: a spatial structure that symbolizes a transparent justice system, all the way down to shared toilets (rather than separate restrooms for judges) to convey through such a “communal arrangement…a daily resistance to hierarchies” (p. 58). I had forgotten about this detail until I came across Garnsey’s description (in chapter 4), reminding me of the South African guide who, at the time of my visit, also pointed to the communal toilets with some pride. Equally surprising is the display of visual art integrated into the architectural design of the Constitutional Court as well as in the adjacent, open gallery space.

Garnsey is at her best when she describes the spatial and visual art choices as configurations that convey (political and aesthetic) values of a new justice-oriented jurisprudence. She names these values, respectively, “accessibility,” “equality,” “dignity,” “freedom of expressions,” and “justice under a tree.” She illustrates them with examples of artists like Marlene Dumas and William Kentridge (both of whom are internationally recognized) as well as through works of art that reflect indigenous African practices, lesser known local artists, and inscriptions integrated into the architectural design to convey the value of human dignity.

In chapter 5, Garnsey intensifies her analysis by providing context to particular art works that tell stories of gendered violence, injustice, and political struggle, such as Ndwandwe’s torture, rape, and killing that informed Judith Mason’s staged photographs The Blue Dress, Sue Williamson’s portraits of South African women who struggled against apartheid, or Ncedkia Mbune’s Body Maps about HIV-infected women. She concludes Part I with an appeal to engage our moral imagination, something that the visual arts can achieve through, what she calls, “sentimental education” (p. 116) that should accompany “moral discourse of human rights [that only] appeals to reason” (p. 117).     

Part II of her book shifts our attention to the South African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Chapters 7 and 8, which open the second part, provide a short political history of the Biennale: how, for example, it operated even during Mussolini’s fascist Italy and why, in the post-1960s, it banned South African artists from participating because of its apartheid policies. Garnsey describes how the ban was eventually lifted, although the Biennale’s “geo-political mapping” (p. 157), she argues, still betrays hierarchies that favor some nations over others. In chapter 9 she returns to the core issue of visual art and justice with an in-depth exploration of artists represented in the 2013 exhibition in the South African Pavilion. Under the headings of “remembering violence,” “recording violence,” and “restoring violence,” the reader’s attention is refocused on how visual art can assist in the transitioning of a legacy of difficult memories of state violence to a forward-looking restorative justice situated in communities. Some of the main art works discussed in this section are David Koloane’s The Journey, Sue Williamson’s For Thirty Years Next to His Heart, and Zanele Muholi’s Faces and Phases. In Garnsey’s view, the exhibition at the 2013 Biennale was a reflection of a post-apartheid state that simultaneously focused “inwards on national reconciliation” and “outwards for diplomatic purposes” (p. 204) to reestablish itself internationally.  

That artistic endeavors contribute to the dynamics of transitional and restorative justice, often on grassroot levels and separate from legal and political procedures, is not altogether a new insight. What is new in Gransey’s book is her plea for considering the visual arts as an intrinsic part of transitional justice—an essential, though always contested part of political processes in transitional moments of state-building. In this sense, her book is indeed a first building block in what the author calls “novel conceptions of visual jurisprudence” (pp. 3 and 209).

Northern Arizona University