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Unsanctioned: the ceramic artworks of Julie Lovelace.

IF YOU GO DOWN TO JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA TODAY 'be sure of a big surprise'. Amongst the grimy brickwork you may glimpse intense, almost garish colour or pattern; the gaze of a disembodied doll or a haphazard collection of decorated porcelain plates. You could be faced with a kitsch green toad balanced atop a collection of building blocks embellished with patterns created by spraying on-glaze through lace, or adorned with decals of flowers, leaves or weaponry; you might also find children's alphabet blocks, bath ducks, toy soldiers or a miniature Ionic column in an unexpected place. These encounters are possible in the less salubrious edges of downtown Johannesburg where ceramics artist, Julie Lovelace, has been inserting her idiosyncratic Unsanctioned Interventions.

As seen in figures 1 and 2: When it Rains it Pours, Lovelace's works are aggregates of hybrid materials --ceramic pieces incorporated with, or cast from, found objects that appear to be arbitrarily grouped together or attached to each other. These objects are then overlain with intense colour and decoration in the form of glazing, decals, textured patterns or writing. They are both playful and disturbing. There is a naivete displayed in the childlike qualities of children's building blocks and a doll's head, or the kitsch rendition of brightly coloured flowers on a delicately wrought lace background. These seemingly innocuous images are tainted, however, by their proximity to a hand grenade, a gun, or an oddly disembodied bull's head. They reflect not only the innocence of Lovelace's childhood but her present reality--the uncertainties of living in what has been identified as one of the most dangerous non-conflict cities in the world.

The title Unsanctioned refers to the fact that each of her ceramic interventions is non-commissioned or 'illegal' in the way that graffiti is an 'illegal' intervention. Unlike graffiti, however, her additions to the environment are unintrusive, quirky and often quite beautiful in an understated way. These objects have been placed in the inner city of Johannesburg: under bridges, in broken walls, on thresholds, on pavements or in storm-water drains (fig. 3). They sometimes fill gaps in broken brickwork, thus, in a way, beautifying or repairing areas of urban decay.

The actual objects inserted into the environment comprise intimate, domestic, found and slipcast objects, small and often familiar items that form the substrate for Lovelace's manipulations, so that they are, in her own words, "imbued with metaphor and narrative[s] ... that reference wider social realities" (Lovelace 2014a:41). Lovelace often selects items that have domestic or utilitarian references because she is interested in the history that seemingly banal objects carry and the way those histories might invest her objects with meaning. For example in her first intervention, If You go Down To The Woods Today she attached a number of found plates of varying sizes to a bridge support under a highway on the corner of Berea and Fox streets in Johannesburg (fig. 4). All the chosen plates have floral patterns reminiscent of English china and were chosen from antique shops or charity shops so many are chipped or cracked and some have worn glazing and roughened surfaces attesting to their history of domestic use. The plates are further embellished with words, applied with decals that explore Lovelace's culture and her feeling of transience in the ever-changing social melee of Johannesburg (fig. 5). The type style used is reminiscent of old circus posters so it is both visually powerful and suggests a sense of excitement and make-believe associated with circus life. Black decal silhouettes are also applied, denoting stereotypical childhood fun and fairy tales interspersed with occasional pieces of historic Rococo furniture (fig. 6). These innocuous images are juxtaposed with guns, tanks and other warlike or dangerous weapons along with words taken from a rap song by Lupe Fiasco, referring to gun violence and its effects on children (Genius [O]) and evoking the dangers of living in Johannesburg (fig. 7).

The first work was installed on International Migrant's Day (18 December 2011) to acknowledge the many millions of other immigrants, displaced people and migrant workers who inhabit Johannesburg. Lovelace returned after a year and to her surprise she found it mostly intact, indeed it had become a point of interest for visitors to the area and was one of the places included in a guided tour organised by local entrepreneurs. For International Migrant's Day in 2012, she replaced missing plates, added a few more and surmounted the arrangement with ceramic representations of clouds and kitsch cherubs. Clouds are rootless and float from place to place while angels are inherently liminal beings; together representing the ephemeral existence of migrants. The cherubs are also armed with tiny silver lustred guns, suitable accoutrements for their sojourn in Johannesburg. The reworked installation was then renamed We Are All Migrants (fig. 8) with these words inscribed onto some of the clouds to emphasise the theme and commemorate the day.

Let Freedom Reign The Sun Shall Never Set On So Glorious A Human Achievement (fig. 9) consists of a ceramic platter with the face of Nelson Mandela applied in the centre, surrounded by gold lustre and the words of the title around the edge of the plate in black letters. Lovelace (2014a:57) wished to honour Mandela and the title refers to the last part of his speech at his presidential inauguration in Pretoria on 10 May 1994. "Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. Let freedom reign. The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement. God bless Africa. (ANC 1994:[0])

Each aspect of the work is carefully considered. The off-ramp under which it is placed was named as a tribute to anti-apartheid activist and friend of Mandela, Joe Slovo. The gold lustre background refers to church icons or Byzantine gold backgrounds, denoting the elevated status of Mandela. The ornate picture frame around his image is reminiscent of those found framing historically 'important' portraits from about the 18th century onwards. Within this overt grandeur one sees a faded sepia image of a smiling Mandela who looks almost transparent and otherworldly in comparison. Lovelace (2014b) used an iron oxide ceramic decal for the portrait as it creates a sepia finish similar to that found in old, fading photographs. At the time this work was made Mandela was gravely ill in hospital and Lovelace's intervention reflects her response to a much loved person who is now fading away.

Gold lustre was also applied to three found ornamental bric-a-brac bud vases that are appended to the top of the plate like the vases one finds on tombstones. These simple, household objects symbolise Mandela's humility and his rapport with the common people. A vertical strip of wall behind the plate and down to the ground is painted red. The plate not only stands out against the background but in Lovelace's (2014b:40) words, red carries connotations of "danger, sacrifice, passion, fire, blood and anger which symbolise Mandela's fight for civil rights and liberty". She also placed flowers in the vases to draw attention to the work and interact with the people who might pass by. The plate took on a memorial function in the days following Mandela's death on 5 December 2013. Flowers were not only placed in the bud vases but also tucked around the plate by anonymous members of the public (fig. 10).

Lovelace's sixth intervention entitled I Did It Mao Wei Wei (fig. 11) is placed on another bridge support under the Joe Slovo off-ramp behind the Mandela portrait. Her intention was to create dialogue between the works by placing them in close proximity to each other and repeating the red background so the works would relate visually to each other, allowing passers-by to feel as if they are walking through a portrait gallery (Lovelace 2014b:44). By demarcating a non-place in the city as visibly different Lovelace is attempting, in a small way, to create a quasi gallery experience for those people who may never enter an art museum. Since her intervention other street artists have inserted work onto the next bridge support, against a similar red background, which further develops the illusion of a street gallery.

I Did It Mao Wei Wei consists of a gold lustre ceramic plate with a coloured portrait of Chairman Mao, weeping blood red tears and framed by a black ornate decal. The written reference is to the Chinese contemporary artist and political activist Ai Wei Wei who was arrested in 2011 and jailed for more than two months without any official charges laid against him. He had been vocal in his condemnation of China's poor human rights record and through his work he expresses his opinions about China's limitation of personal freedoms (Moore 2011 [O]). Lovelace has used Mao's image and the reference to Ai Wei Wei in the title to raise awareness about his disappearance and the lack of artistic freedom in China that he was fighting against. The words on the plate refer to a song that was popularised by Frank Sinatra: "I did it my way" (Paul Anka 1967). The lyrics are particularly pertinent in this instance as Ai Wei Wei has been censored and jailed for having an opinion that does not conform to the rigid Chinese political credo. The image of Mao presents a counterpoint to the icon of human rights, freedom and social cohesion that is Mandela--alerting us all not to take these rights for granted.

The works discussed thus far have been embraced by the people who encounter them. They have been documented by visitors and journalists and have appeared on blog sites as evidence of the cultural manifestations abounding in the less regulated areas of urban Johannesburg. Some interventions have not fared as well, however. The bright yellow ducks 'floating' in a storm-water drain (fig. 3), have turned black due to a chemical reaction with the polluted effluence pouring into the drain. The vase, Shopping for Democracy (fig. 12), which was erected as part of a shack installation in collaboration with St.John Fuller in 2012 (fig. 13), was stolen (or, as Lovelace terms it, repurposed) shortly after installation. Lovelace's cheerful blocks and objects that repaired the crumbling brickwork of a bridge in: If You Go Down To The Woods Today (fig. 1), were sadly smashed by the local street children within a week of their erection. This vandalism so dismayed the other local dwellers that Lovelace has undertaken to replace the blocks with more robust objects, and she is currently working on this project.

Lovelace's manner of discreetly embellishing untended areas of a city with what are essentially process art works, due to their lack of permanence, is almost diametrically opposed to the notion of commissioned sculpture. There is no plinth, or open space from which to view it, no process of selection by municipal officials, no 'unveiling' of the finished piece to public acclaim. Instead these pieces appear, are noticed (or not), are sometimes vandalised or stolen and sometimes accepted and become an integral part of the urban landscape. Lovelace accepts the freedom to destroy, remove or engage with the work as an integral part of her project. Her works are invitations to the liminal inhabitants of Johannesburg's margins to interact with and respond to the playful interventions of an artist who is expressing her own liminality. In doing this Julie Lovelace hopes to allow for alternative interpretations of space and cultural expression and to celebrate what exists beyond the delineated confines of sanctioned urban structures.


ANC. 1994. Speeches. [OJ. Available: Accessed: 26 November 2014.

Genius, [Sa]. Lupe Fiasco Little Weapon Lyrics (O). Available:, Accessed: 17 February 2015.

Lovelace, J. 2014a. Expressions of Liminality in Selected Examples of Unsanctioned Public

Art in Johannesburg. Unpublished M-Tech Dissertation. University of Johannesburg.

Lovelace, J. 2014b. Unsanctioned. Unpublished Catalogue/documentation of the Unsanctioned interventions of Julie Lovelace.

Moore, M. 1985. Nonverbal Courtship Patterns in Women: Contact and Consequences. Ethnology and Sociobiology (6): 237-247.

Karen von Veh is Associate Professor of art history in the Visual Arts Department at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. She is vice-president of SAVAH (the South African Visual Arts Historians association) and is on the hoard of directors of ACASA (Arts Council of the African Studies Association--US based). She also serves on the editorial committee of De Arte art historical journal. Her research interests and publication topics include contemporary South African Art, the transgressive use of religious (Christian) iconography in contemporary art, postcolonial studies and gender studies.

All photos by the artist.
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Author:von Veh, Karen
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Dec 1, 2015
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