Creativity
Never-Before-Seen Drawings by Nelson Mandela Unveiled on His 100th Birthday
Nelson Mandela drawing. Photo by Grant Warren. Courtesy of WeTransfer and The House of Mandela Art.

Nelson Mandela drawing. Photo by Grant Warren. Courtesy of WeTransfer and The House of Mandela Art.

He endured 27 years in prison, helped end apartheid, and served as South Africa’s first black president. But by the early 2000s, Nelson Mandela had retired, was running his foundation, preparing from his departure from public life—and reinventing himself as an amateur artist.
“When my father retired as the president, he didn’t have much to do,” wrote his eldest daughter, Makaziwe Mandela-Amuah, in a recently published essay about her father, who died in 2013. “I think for him, art was a good way of expressing himself or trying to come to terms with his history and his—I wouldn’t want to say demons but just coming to terms with his whole life.”
In honor of Mandela’s 100th birthday, WeTransfer has mounted an online exhibition in collaboration with House of Mandela Art, featuring several of his never-before-seen sketches. These works illustrate that, through art, Mandela was able to express his personal history and emotions in ways that he hadn’t been able to with words.
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Mandela’s first forays into art began in 2001, and he would go on to create a total of 40 finished works, Mandela-Amuah told Artsy via email. He made his first drawings in July 2001, when a creative director showed him how to use charcoals (later, he’d take more formal art lessons). Mandela found influential early inspiration in drawings by John Lennon. “The simple lines and content of John’s works is what gave Mr. Mandela the confidence to continue this newfound ability,” Mandela-Amuah explained.
His first works—picturing two hands, bound together—formed the basis for what would become his “Struggle” series. “These sketches are not so much about my life as they are about my own country,” Mandela wrote. “In time, we broke open the shackles of injustice, we joined hands across social divides and national boundaries, between continents and over oceans.”
The next series Mandela pursued was more directly autobiographical, reflecting on the two decades he was incarcerated, beginning at the prison on Robben Island (his 27 years behind bars began there in 1963; he also spent time in Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison before he was released in 1990). He traveled back there to sketch the grounds, and even the view he’d had from behind bars. While Mandela was initially concerned that the resulting works might be too sullen and depressing, Mandela-Amuah noted, they turned out remarkably vibrant, rendered in rich primary colors.
His next series, “Homeland,” pictured Qunu, the village where Mandela was born and raised, and where he chose to be buried. The 13 drawings were “inspired by his love for the peace and tranquility of Qunu,” Mandela-Amuah explained. “It was his spiritual home. During his later years, he would spend time watching the cows grazing; this made him immensely happy. Not many people know that he loved farming and growing vegetables.”
The simple drawings, in charcoal and pastel, picture serene scenes—cows grazing in a field; humble houses with pitched roofs; a deep green mound of land surrounded by water. Mandela was working from photographs of Qunu’s hills, valleys, the Mbashe River, and clusters of homes where families lived. Mandela-Amuah recalled that her father had fond memories of Qunu.
“People think my dad was a politician and that Nelson Mandela just fell from the sky—that he doesn’t have a sense of place, he doesn’t have a sense of belonging,” Mandela-Amuah wrote. “For me, the ‘Homeland’ sketches are very important for the world because they give a glimpse of who my father was holistically: how proud he was of who he was and where he came from, even though he came from humble beginnings. That’s what I want the world to see. Not just the politician.”
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Creativity Editor.