Twelve years ago, at the age of 83 Nelson Mandela revisited Robben Island. And with the help of photographer Grant Warren, left with a collection of photographs of the prison where he spent 18 years of his life.
Using the photographs as a guide, and with the support of his personal art teacher Varenka Paschke, he produced a series of lithographs.
Now, a month after his death and the premiere of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the series of works are on show at Belgravia Gallery.
Hung alongside the photographs of the same locations and Mandela’s hand written motivation for the pieces, you first notice the surprising use of bold colours and strong lines of his lithographs. In contrast to the black and white photographs of the bleak spaces, Mandela chooses bright yellows, greens and blues to portray his view of the building he was held captive in.
For those of you who have watched the film, the prominence of the tomato plant Mandela grows is explained in his handwritten motivation for ‘The Courtyard’.
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.
Whereas the tomato plant seems an irrelevant detail in the film, here it is a firm reminder of Mandela’s momentous character.
In ‘The Window’, Mandela depicts his view of the Table Mountain from a window inside the prison. Last month, In South Africa’s national week of mourning for Mandela, the mountain which Mandela once said “was a beacon of hope” for him whilst on Robben Island, was adorned with a laser projection of his face.
In ‘The Tennis Court’, there is a clear difference in the size of the guard tower in the photograph and Mandela’s lithograph.
Appearing much taller and more prominent in the lithograph, the protruding guard tower implies Mandela’s feeling of constant torment and oppression during his time on the island even while playing tennis, one of his favourite hobbies at that time.
Instead of looking at Robben Island in a negative light, in one of his artist’s motivations Mandela extraordinarily describes it as a ‘celebration of the struggle’. It is these handwritten descriptions, which accompany the works, that make the collection so much more personal.
The film may have educated us and refreshed our minds of the series of events which made up this remarkable man’s life, but this exhibition will cause a sense of closeness to Mandela and his beautiful spirit.
The Nelson Mandela : The Long Walk to Freedom exhbition is free and showing 2 February at Belgravia Gallery Monday – Friday