Reflecting on Nelson Mandela’s Art

mandela-1I posted this as Nelson Mandela lingered in hospital in July, as tributes to his influence as a freedom fighter poured into South Africa. He is gone now (1918-2013) and his global role remains the focus. But there is less acknowledgement of his remarkable art.  In 2002, he began a series of more than 20 sketches about Robben Island, where he spent 18 of his 27 years in prison.  These are a selection of the sketches – historic documents that underscore the tyranny of his imprisonment.  (See another post on his art, on Canadian Art Junkie, here)


Mandela’s cell looked onto what was originally a grim wasteland. Eventually, he was able to cultivate vegetables in the space known as The Courtyard. These notes reflect the solace of his garden.  (For larger images, see an e-book about these works at Belgravia Gallery’s website, here.)


Mandela’s notes – compiled after he revisited Robben Island in the 1990s – point out the importance of the infirmary.  Political prisoners and general prisoners were kept well apart, so The Ward (below) was the only place on the compound where Mandela could share information and keep in touch with the rest of the world.


The transformation of a courtyard into a Tennis Court (below) at Robben Island prompted Mandela to mediate on the perversity of being able to play such a civilized sport in so brutal an environment. When Mandela re-visited Robben Island, he was accompanied by talented photographer Grant Warren.


mandela-photo-tennisThe Tennis Court – Grant Warren

The Window (below) depicts a view of Table Mountain, but Mandela’s cell did not actually look out on this scene through the bars.  The view idealizes one that represents the freedom and beauty Mandela sought during incarceration.


A handwritten motivation piece created by Mandela for this series of sketches reads:

“Today when I look at Robben Island I see it as a celebration of the struggle and a symbol of the finest qualities of the human spirit, rather than as a monument to the brutal tyranny and oppression of apartheid.”

Another post on Mandela’s Robben Island lithographs on Canadian Art Junkie, here.

Home page for Nelson Mandela’s art, here.

Nelson Mandela Photo Gallery on NPR, here.

The Prisoner: The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela on Frontline, here.

16 replies »

  1. Never knew Mandela had artistic works. When I’m looking his pictures I realized, even he was illustrating a brutal place, he used very lively colors. I think those colors are representing his positive and hopefull character. Thanks for sharing!


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