Nelson Mandela: The Artist

Belgravia Gallery
Feb 22, 2018 12:46PM

In 1997 we were at a meeting at St James's Palace to discuss some new lithographs based on watercolours by the Prince of Wales and the programme in which we are involved for the publication and distribution of the Prince's work. One of his aides questioned why the sales have been so successful over the years - to which I replied: "It's simple, there are only three people in the world whose artwork, were it sold for charity, would attract so much interest: the Pope, the Prince of Wales and Nelson Mandela."

Mandela Signing Session

Mandela Signing Session

In 2002 whilst in New York, we learned that Nelson Mandela had indeed started to draw and that his first signed limited editions were to be launched a few months later. Mr Mandela had been invited to participate in a programme which would have him drawing a series of works which would benefit people worldwide in a number of ways.

Belgravia Gallery was deeply honoured to be associated with this spectacular initiative. The works themselves are amazing - fresh, bright, well drawn, iconic symbols of the struggle in South Africa and the triumph over the tyranny of the apartheid years. They are also unique, historic and extraordinary. It is always fascinating to see art drawn by someone known in a different context. Winston Churchill was, like Mandela, a significant writer: he also became a noted painter.

In May 2002, he began a series of sketches with the subject Robben Island. In the company of a skilled photographer, Grant Warren, he revisited the island, scene of some of his most painful years with its cruel repressive regime. Images of his cell, Table Mountain from the beach, the lighthouse, church, quarry, guard towers and many other scenes were photographed.

At his home, under the watchful eye of his art teacher Varenka Paschke, a young South African artist, he quickly adapted from being a world leader to a budding artist. Varenka told me she guided her student providing assistance with the basic composition of the sketches and method of the colour applications. Nelson Mandela completed over 30 sketches that include images he found meaningful, both symbolically and emotionally, during the period of his incarceration on the island. The works were completed in a series of colour separations; first the strong black crayon lines providing the guide, then he selected colourful shades for each image. It is interesting to note that he completed no one original piece for these lithographs, only a series of separations which, when overlaid, create the final picture. The five editions were signed individually by Mr Mandela - each of the pieces with a generous and carefully drawn signature. His artists’ motivations were written in his characteristic neat handwriting and offer an insight into his thoughts behind the colour images he created. Possibly the most interesting- certainly the one which caused the most media attention was 'The Window'- not because it has a view of Table Mountain- inaccurately described in one newspaper as the view from Mandela's cell, but because it is so imaginative, with brilliant colour and composition. The eye is drawn to the screws around the metal window frame: how often he must have contemplated them. Asking him about the strong orange and maroon colours in 'The Window', he told us "That window, you know, was actually a window to the world, because I could see quite a lot. I could see my mental horizons expand".

It has been inspiring for my daughter and gallery manager Laura and me to be in Mr Mandela's presence and witness him signing some of these pieces at his home in Johannesburg. On 9th December 2002 he signed around 400 works from the first series in one morning whilst sitting at his dining table. He shared many wonderful stories about his life experiences and his thoughts on current events. He spoke enthusiastically about his art and that he loved to draw, joking that when he retired he wanted to become a full time artist. We sharpened his pencils and placed the unsigned images in front of him to sign, then moved each into a box of signed works. He had clearly been busy for days, judging by those items already signed. More were left for his signature over the coming days.

The video footage we filmed that morning shows him signing at his dining table wearing a soft neckbrace which made it more comfortable while sitting for a long period. He sat still and we developed quite a collaborative rhythm as we moved the papers to and fro for him. He chatted about AIDS and the sufferers he had met, and stressed the influence of the late Diana, Princess of Wales in alerting him to the nature of the problem. He told us "I was in jail when I read of a case, a trial, and a judge. One of the accused in the course of the trial said "I have AIDS". The judge was the first to run out. And the prosecutor, the clerk of the court, and the audience all ran out. And it took Princess Diana, who went to a hospital with AIDS sufferers. They all shook hands with her and she sat on their beds for about 30 minutes and came out. And people said that if a British princess can actually shake hands with AIDS sufferers and sit down for about 30 minutes, then there's nothing in this superstition."

When the Robben Island Series was delivered to our gallery in London we were impressed at the directness, the strong use of line and colour, and the confidence with his form. The Cell, The Lighthouse, The Church, The Harbour and The Window are Mr Mandela's early works but few professional artists could have captured the horrors of 17 years on Robben Island with such skill. Instead of the expected dark greys and morbid browns, the strong colours make a clear statement. Although these were places where many suffered, they were drawn with a love which prevails over adversity and brutality. His work exudes the grace with which he has triumphed over the past and offers us, as all great art should, an opportunity to reflect on its message in our own lives.

The works were widely covered in the world's press and on television. The Voice newspaper quoted Professor Hannah Steinberg, an expert in creativity and psychology from University College London. "According to Professor Steinberg, Mandela's sketches reflect his long confinement, his yearning for freedom and his endless capacity for hope. She said "The two 'cell' sketches are particularly poignant. Associated with feelings of depression- the blocks of blue and purple-is the oppressiveness of his surroundings, with the strength and solidity of the bars heavily portrayed in browns and oranges. There is also hope as shown in the lighthouse sketch, the pale yellow standing against the purple background. There is also a longing for freedom- the distant mountains seen from the prison cell, the harbour sketching into the distance.." Professor Steinberg concluded that, despite Mandela's stoicism and his success and veneration on the world's stage, the memory of his incarceration remains fresh in his mind: "The scars run deep and one suspects that he finds some peace in being able to relive his feelings by this relatively indirect approach."

Clients were very moved by the pictures. One young woman broke down in tears telling us that her father was imprisoned on Robben Island for 15 years. She remembered him only from the time he returned, a broken man, who survived just three more years.

The Robben Island and Hand series were printed under the supervision of Professor Steven Inggs at the printmaking department of the University of Cape Town to the highest standards of printmaking. The quality is equal to the production of the finest French and British ateliers.

We first saw the piece ‘Hand of Africa’ with its paint still drying on our visit to Mr Mandela's home in December 2002. He had produced several versions with the idea of one being chosen which had clear finger and thumb prints and interesting life lines and love lines which might be interpreted by a palm reader. I was immediately drawn to one of the group which had a shape similar to that of Africa at its centre. We all joked about it suggesting shapes which our own hands may produce. I was surprised and delighted that from this light hearted exchange, the magnificent piece 'Hand of Africa' was chosen for publication. A British newspaper called it, "an enduring symbol of the twentieth century."

The first series of Robben Island along with the Hand of Africa and Impressions of Africa editions were launched at a very elegant dinner we hosted in the former games room on Robben Island in February 2003, with Mr Mandela as guest of honour. The world's press, various dignitaries and clients attended what was the most memorable dinner of our lives. The dust and cockroach-infested room was given a five star makeover. Luxury washrooms were sent from the mainland, one of which fell into the harbour whilst being unloaded! Guests travelled on the Robben Island ferry to a dinner provided by the Mount Nelson Hotel. Some of us were treated to the sight of magnificent whales rising up from the deep near our boat. Mr Mandela was transported by helicopter. In his speech he spoke of the vivid colours of Africa when he was a child, recalling the colours of the moon as it changed from silver to bright red and all the colours in a rainbow. He contrasted these with the grey and khaki on Robben Island, then the experience of growing tomatoes which turned from green to red, and, much later the yellow of his first banana in 20 years. It was a strange experience to see him at this most notorious place which would have held such terrible memories, smiling and gracious as ever. Having delivered his powerful speech, it was amusing to watch Mr Mandela as he sat at our table amongst our dumbstruck guests and introduce himself, "Hello, I'm Nelson Mandela".

The Prince of Wales sent a generous message of support for the Nelson Mandela art programme which was read out at the Robben Island dinner. I was also asked to speak- a daunting experience- and set the works in their artistic and historical context.

A few months later we launched a further series of five images of Robben Island, featuring the Guard Tower, Mandela's Walk, the Courtyard the Tennis Court and the Ward which were produced in editions of 350. Interestingly, each colour image is accompanied by the photograph which inspired it, and a printed version of Mr Mandela's handwritten artist's motivation statement. The words are often poignant and expand our understanding of his experiences. One of the works, The Courtyard, is accompanied by some very beautiful prose regarding a tomato plant he tried to grow there: "Despite my efforts the plant began to wither and nothing I did would heal it. When it died I took it carefully from the soil, washed its roots and buried it in the garden. I felt sad. It once again reminded me of where I was, and the hopeless mess I felt at being unable to nourish other relationships in my life. It made me realize the, simplicity and sacred value of family, of loved ones or friends. I swore to myself that I would never take another human being, their friendship or their love for granted again."

In all our discussions with Nelson Mandela, the context of our involvement and our acquisition of his signed artworks for sale in London was understood. We had, through the sale of lithographs based on his watercolours, raised some £4 million for the Prince of Wales's Charitable Foundation. We looked forward to doing the same for African and Indian children's charities. Belgravia Gallery has used part of its proceeds of sales to make donations to children's charities in Africa and India, where we have built schools in towns and remote tribal villages in Tamil Nadu for the Dalit community – formerly known as the untouchables – in memory of my son Sebastian.

In 2005, a legal dispute arose between Nelson Mandela and his lawyers relating to intellectual property. Thankfully this is now being resolved between family members and others involved in the initiative. Every Nelson Mandela work sold by Belgravia Gallery has signature verification by the eminent South African signature expert, Cecil Greenfield.

Throughout history few have left so indelible an imprint on the international stage as Nelson Mandela. His courage, compassion and humanity are among the qualities than have led to this Nobel laureate being recognised as the world's greatest living statesman. Never did an individual more powerfully symbolise the hopes of a nation. South Africa became free in the way that it did because his hand reached out to all. His name has become a beacon of hope to oppressed peoples throughout the world.

We believe that this collection of drawings and the handwritten motivations he wrote to accompany the works are of great historical significance to the artistic history of South Africa. They show a man who is determined that his art would reflect his personal philosophy of showing grace and conciliation, while not forgetting the past. His work is strong and powerful, in both colour and composition. Unable to learn to draw while incarcerated, the only paper available was used to smuggle messages to the outside world- Mr Mandela in his eighties, grasped this opportunity to express himself. The directness and spontaneity of his work can be compared favourably with the Paris Peace Movement drawings which Picasso created to raise funds. We hope that Nelson Mandela's artwork will hang with pride of place in homes, businesses and galleries.

It was a fascinating experience and a true honour to spend time with Mr Mandela at his home and on Robben Island, and hear from him first hand of his enjoyment of drawing and enjoy his enthusiastic participation in this project. We trust that these most interesting and historical works of art allow some of that experience and our pleasure to be shared.

Anna Hunter, Managing Director, Belgravia Gallery

Nelson Mandela
Hand of Africa, 2002
Belgravia Gallery
Belgravia Gallery