Nelson Mandela’s better known as a statesman rather than an artist, but in 2001, aged 83 and only several years after he stepped down from being the president of South Africa, he began to draw. He used the dining room in his home to develop his newly-found passion and the two main subjects of his drawings were his imprisonment in Robben Island, where he spent 18 out of his 27 years in captivity, as well as the village of Qunu, his ancestral home and also the place where his funeral and burial took place, in 2013. Mandela drew enthusiastically with charcoal and pastels, beginning with the set entitled the ‘My Robben Island Series’, which was then followed by the now infamous ‘Hand of Africa’ a print of his right hand. This was followed by a set of drawings entitled ‘Reflections of Robben Island’ each of which comprised a drawing, a hand written artists motivation and a photograph. He had the help of a tutor who advised him on colour and perspective. Nelson Mandela signed each one carefully in pencil and they were sold by Belgravia Gallery in London.
The simple pictures drawn by Mandela include The Robben Island series, based on his prison experience. These were produced between March and June 2002 and each of the 6 pictures is signed and numbered. They are:
• The Window
• The Lighthouse
• The Harbour
• The Church
• Artist’s Motivation
The ‘motivations’ are comments written in Mandela’s own hand about each image and his words are powerful and moving. Mandela sketched images that he found symbolically and emotionally meaningful, using simple black charcoal lines with bold highlights of pastel colour. The drawings are also highly symbolic of African culture, especially those depicting his home village Qunu and the surrounding area.
At the opening ceremony of an exhibition of his artwork on Robben Island, Mandela made a speech in which he talked about having a lifelong romance with colour and how he grew up as a rural shepherd boy in the Eastern Cape province. He remembered the shining stars, the beautiful moon by night and the shimmering, colourful rainbows by day. In one of his motivations, Mandela wrote that Robben Island had been a place of darkness, but out of that had come a bright light, so strong that it could no longer be hidden behind prison bars. Speaking about his artwork, Mandela said that through his sketches of Robben Island, he had tried to show the positive light he saw in his mind’s eye, as this was how he’d begun to see it after his release. He wanted to show that people can achieve their dreams if they’re prepared to endure the challenges that life brings. Robben Island prison’s no longer open and Robben Island itself became South Africa’s first World Heritage Site in 1999.
Nelson Mandela’s reported to have said that when he eventually retired he wanted to become a full-time artist. It’s thought that he found it a huge source of escape and solace. He’s in good company because many great people (including Prince Charles) feel the same and turn to art as a departure from their demanding public life.