The artist, the ConCourt judge, and RBG
The last time retired Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs saw his dear friend, United States (US) Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg was when he delivered a unique lace collar created by acclaimed South African artist Kim Lieberman at the end of 2018.
Bader Ginsburg died, aged 87, on 18 September after a long illness, and the world is mourning this political and feminist icon. Since she became the second woman ever to serve on the US Supreme Court in 1993, RBG (as she was affectionately called) has been a leading voice for gender equality, women’s interests, civil rights, and liberties.
Lieberman learnt about RBG in July 2018 and was taken with all that she stood for. Once she realised that the US judge collected and wore lace collars, she was determined to make one for her.
Lieberman described RBG as having challenged and transformed gender-based laws and perceptions for decades. “She must have been pivotal at the start of the feminist era,” said Lieberman “She continued to press issues of that nature. People celebrate her integrity and her stance, and what must be the dignified yet fierce way she had to uphold and place her value system.”
Lieberman contacted Sachs as soon as she could because she knew he was a close friend of RBG.
“I emailed him [in August 2018] about my idea, asking him if he had a route to get the lace collar to her. He said he would gladly take it to her himself if I could make it by November, as he was going to Washington DC then,” said Lieberman. She made it and delivered it to Sachs in Cape Town, and he personally took it to the already ailing US judge.
Sachs had been friends with RBG for about 20 years at the time, having met her at the US Supreme Court when gathering ideas for building the Constitutional Court in South Africa. After being introduced to her and invited to her chambers, visiting her became a “must-do” whenever he was in Washington DC.
RBG and her late husband, Marty, then came to visit Sachs in South Africa to see the Constitutional Court about 10 to 15 years ago. “She adored our court, loving the warmth and friendliness of the building,” he said. Her delight in the court Sachs was so involved in developing was his all-time favourite memory of her.
Because of him, RBG went on to write the foreword for Art and Justice, a book on the art collection of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. It turns out that an artwork of Lieberman was featured in the book.
When Sachs took Lieberman’s collar to RBG, he recalls having to wait a while to see her because, in spite of her ailing health, she was working out with her trainer. He smiles at the memory of how RBG “looked like this tiny person who would be blown away by the wind, but she had a vice-like grip and was incredibly strong”.
He recalls her opening the box with the collar in it, and her eyes lighting up. “She gasped, literally gasped. She said she was thrilled, and felt and touched the collar, and put it back on the soft, dark cushion and said, ‘Albie, I can’t wear this, it’s a work of art. I’m going to rather frame it’.”
Sachs told the SA Jewish Report this week, “Ruth was very careful that we shouldn’t take photographs of her wearing the lace collar as she didn’t want her station to be involved in anything commercial as in to promote Kim’s work.”
However, he said he was “so happy” to take the collar to RBG because he knew that Lieberman had created it for her out of deep respect for all she stood for. Also, he said, it was no coincidence that Lieberman was working in lace, and RBG was interested in lace collars. It made sense to him that she would want to give her this gift.
For Lieberman, the mission that connected her to RBG began in a mud bath on the Italian island of Vulcano. “I was chatting to an American woman I’d just met, and I mentioned that I make conceptual art and lace,” recalled Lieberman. “She asked if I’d heard of Judge Ginsburg. She told me that she wears lace collars to make political, feminist statements. You can just imagine the shivers I had. So many of the concepts she spoke of I embed in my lace works. I knew I had to make RBG a lace collar. I immediately also knew how it would look, and the concepts it would convey – the same concepts with which she imbues her own collars.”
Early on as a judge, RBG decided that as her male counterparts wore ties, she would wear feminine collars as a feminist stand. But feminism was only one part of this complex and fascinating woman, who also loved art and opera.
Sachs described his late friend as “very solid, grounded, firm, and decent” about being a judge, a woman, and a dear friend. “She had an extremely sharp mind, quick but not witty and smartassed – that wasn’t her style.
“She had a deep and profound sense of justice, being there to protect the vulnerable. So, although she became famous as a feminist legal advocate and strategist, which was central to her work, it didn’t stop her from engaging in other areas where people were being unfairly treated by the law.”
RBG recognised that people thought she offered a different vision of the world to that of Donald Trump, Sachs said. However, she “lacked bravado, and instead was thoughtful and modest and very determined to do what was right”.