The Casspir project – transformation from symbol of hate and fear to aesthetic object to be admired for its riot of colour, creativity and skill
What is a Casspir?
Did you know that Casspir is an anagram of the acronyms SAP (South African Police) and CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research)? The Casspir was a military vehicle, designed in South Africa and used extensively during the 1980s by the Apartheid-era South African Police, as well as by the South African Defence Force, mainly in urban areas. It was also known as a Spoek (Afrikaans for ghost, as in Caspar … but sadly not of the friendly variety). Here it has been transformed …
I had a blind spot when I visited the Turbine Art Fair a couple of weeks back. Somehow I missed the quite extraordinary beaded Casspir. I don’t know how I did, but I did – these things happen to me … more and more. So when I heard that it was going to be outside the Everard Read Gallery as part of the Keyes Art Mile last Saturday, I scooped up some interested guests and hot-footed it across … well actually Uber-ed across, thinking there would be a huge crowd and no parking. But it was surprisingly quiet – I find it sad how few people (apart from art aficionados) have heard of the Beaded Casspir known as Afrika47 (alluding to the AK 47s that emerged from the gun-holes of the military vehicle as it patrolled the townships).
I was able to speak to Kennedy at length, one of the main project managers (and artist), about the project. Pictures simply don’t do justice to the scale, impact, detail, skill and workmanship. The figures too are mind-boggling: 74 women in a bead collective in Mpumalanga working for a year making panels some of which run the whole length of the vehicle; 6 men who then placed the panels on the vehicle and beaded all the smaller details: pipes, tanks, nuts, in the tyres and of course the interior; 55 million beads: “one for everyone in the country” said Kennedy; and they add a ton to the already 11 ton weight of the vehicle.
Commissioned by Ralph Ziman ex- South African artist and film-maker and conceptualized as a menacing machine of oppression and fear transformed through colour, skill and job creation into a thing of joy and even redemption.
When I was there, a woman was talking to Kenedy with me and she was also emotional, in a very different way from me as I do/did not live in the townships and was never threatened by these hated vehicles. Kennedy said that some who had driven Casspirs and who had come to see this one, were reduced to tears of remorse. Whether this is convincing or acceptable to those who suffered and families who lost loved ones is a moot point. But when Kennedy said that the vehicle (which gets driven to the various locations) will be going to Katlehong and Soweto, the woman talking with him was clearly moved and in some way very grateful.
Even the indicators, seen glowing here on the right, are beaded.
The writing on the front reinforces the message: from war to love and from violence to peace. Idealistic maybe, but we can but try and this is such an incredibly joyous, riotous, uplifting artwork that it cannot fail but move in some way.
And the pièce de résistance … the entire interior is beaded. The floor cannot be covered with beads because of wear and tear, but it will be covered in a colourful material still to be decided. I stood by and watched as people came round to look through the back doors and having been amazed at the exterior, they literally gasped in wonder as they looked at the inside.
After going to a few more Joburg venues, the Casspir will leave, by ship, to a London Art Fair and then to a Los Angeles Art Fair and then to its permanent home with its commissioner Ralph Ziman. We are very sad to see it go but also proud of the amazing talent and creativity we have in this country.
Kennedy says that Ziman has already commissioned the beading of a drone, a large one!
For more on the history of the Casspir see the Iziko article written for the unveiling of the work in CapeTown in December 2016.