There is no denying Mandela’s enormous creativity. During his active years spent opposing the oppressive South African apartheid regime, he developed his creative capacity for disguise; his various roles included chef, chauffeur and fieldworker. He was an escape artist: he was so hard to catch he was known as the Black Pimpernel. He was a persuasive speaker: his famous ‘I am prepared to die’ courtroom speech attracted world attention. He was also an author, his book ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, that he wrote while he was in the brutal Robben Island prison, has been turned into a successful film. Little wonder that such creativity should also find an artistic means of expression.
In his Johannesburg home, in 2001, Mandela began sketching, using pastels and charcoal. He had retired from the presidency and decided to dedicate some time to something he had long wanted to do. It was Mandela’s imprisonment that first spotlighted the plight of South Africa; it is no surprise that this historically important and personally painful period should be the main focus of Mandela’s artworks. His first sketches of Robben Island prison were made into lithographs and sold for charity, supporting Aids victims and homeless children.
A limited series of lithographs, produced and marketed by the Belgravia Gallery, reveal more of Mandela’s world. As can be expected, symbolism is high and the art itself is intriguing. Some are sketch-type pictures in charcoal or shades of brown; many have surprising splashes of colour which draw the attention to the ‘positive’ aspects of prison life. ‘The Church’ is all colour as is ‘The Window’, a yearning view of the outside world. Some are purely symbolic, like the series of hands representing ‘freedom’, ‘struggle’, ‘unity’, and the famous ‘Hand of Africa’ which is Mandela’s own hand, curiously with the silhouette of Africa in the middle. Every piece of artwork, every image, every symbol is powerful in its simplicity and speaks to us strongly about values, justice and humanity.