Mandela draws on prison life to raise £5m with vivid artwork

Click to follow

Nelson Mandela offered further insight into his years of incarceration on Robben Island when his latest artwork was unveiled yesterday in a sale that is intended to raise more than £5m for charity.

The sketches by the former South African president are to be sold by a London gallery to raise money for his charitable foundation, the Nelson Mandela Trust, which helps orphans and HIV sufferers in his country.

In handwritten comments to accompany his pictures, the 85-year-old Nobel peace prizewinner said that he now remembered the "stark hospital wards" of the notorious prison "with fondness", so his sketch was "filled with joyous colour".

Mr Mandela spent 17 years in the apartheid regime's maximum-security prison before being moved to a jail on the mainland. The collection of five simple charcoal and pastel lithographs includes The Ward, showing the hospital that served as the focal point for prisoners.

There are 350 limited editions of each sketch, costing between £2,950 and £3,950 a picture. Another depicts curled barbed wire in front of a bright orange watchtower and the bare courtyard where prisoners were allowed to play tennis at the notorious prison.

He described the hospital as "the vital link between us and the rest of the world" where news of the outside world trickled through to inmates. He added: "Today I remember the stark hospital wards with fondness. These memories, like this sketch, are filled with joyous colours."

Mr Mandela wrote about playing tennis in the jail: "It was a strange sensation enjoying such civilised hobbies in such an uncivilised place."

Anna Hunter, owner of the Belgravia Gallery, which is exhibiting the pictures, said: "I think what marks him out is that he's able to see symbols of tyranny and oppression in a positive light. He saw it at the time and he sees it now."

She said the imposing Guard Tower was likely to prove the most popular. "It's orange and very striking," she said. "It's a wonderful image."

Richard Fitzwilliams, an art critic, said Mr Mandela's choice of vibrant and warm colours reflected his message of hope.

"The use of bright colour is symbolic," he said. "The colours could have been far grimmer than they are. Most people would consider that experience [incarceration for 17 years] grim and would want to forget it. For Mandela, it was a microcosm of the wider struggle against apartheid in South Africa."

Situated eight miles off the coast of Cape Town, Robben Island served as a prison for black opposition figures, union organisers and militant activists. Mr Mandela was released in 1990 and was elected President in South Africa's first multiracial elections in 1994. He shared the 1993 Nobel peace prize for his campaign to end white rule.

The new sketches follow the release of Mr Mandela's first series last year, which included The Cell and The Lighthouse.


By Michael Glover

About three years ago Nelson Mandela began to muse upon his legacy.

Was he to be remembered only for his greatness as a statesman? Then the South African publisher Ross McLean Calder came up with a cracking idea. What about an artwork? Hadn't the Prince of Wales been knocking out lithographs for 15 years or more? Hadn't John Lennon done it?

So Mr Mandela found an art teacher to help him with perspective and colour, and set to work.

He did a series of lithographs of hands, his own big right one on its own, and then his left hand surrounded by smaller hands of children touched by Aids. The theme was Mr Mandela as a healing father of the nation.

He also began to memorialise his time on Robben Island - he created an idealised view from his cell window towards Table Mountain (he never actually saw that view from his window), a colour-drenched picture of the church, and best of all, a spare image of the inside of his cell, with just a few precious belongings aflame with colour.

Generally speaking, his technique was to outline in black charcoal, and overlay various details with planes of pastel colour when he wanted to give particular emphasis. The works are bold, crude, vigorous, with a kind of folksy appeal.

Mr Mandela's latest lithographs pursue the same theme - his prison's courtyard, watchtower and hospital.

This time he has worked alongside a South African photographer, Grant Warren. Each man has produced the same image. Warren's photograph of that horrible watchtower, with its grisly garnish of barbed wire, continues to haunt us.

Mr Mandela, on the other hand, has forgiven everyone, and so he can afford to be generous. But it's all a bit confusing to have planes of delicate colour overlaying once oppressive and otherwise fairly humdrum shapes.

He may have forgiven his enemies, but in doing so he has made it difficult to create art that carries much conviction. But perhaps he just wants the well-heeled to want a bit of Nelson, just as Charles wants that audience (they are both shown by the same gallery) to have a bit of Charles, swelling the coffers of their respective charities.