Framing human dignity: visual jurisprudence at South Africa’s Constitutional Court

The Constitutional Court of South Africa is a unique space by international comparison because it houses a large visual art collection developed by and for the court. The purpose of this article is to look at the connections between human dignity and art at the Constitutional Court. Is the performance of dignity in the art collection a utopian ideal, achievable objective, or unrealised potential? I argue that the art collection is a kind of visual jurisprudence that responds to, but also comprises, conceptions of human dignity as a right, a value and a touchstone of democracy — conceptions that are closely entwined with South Africa’s human rights governance, but that manifest in very different ways. At the same time that human dignity becomes realised by the spatial transformation of the site of the court, it remains in the art collection something that must ever be worked towards. This article arises out of six months of participant observation fieldwork at the Constitutional Court, conducting 54 semi-structured interviews with people involved in the collection.


Eliza Garnsey, PhD Candidate, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge. Email:

Publish Date: 
November, 2016
Publication title: 
AJHR 22-2: Special issue on Utopias and human rights