31 January 2011 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

Madiba the artist

I don’t want to talk about how people reacted to the news last week that Nelson Mandela was ill - or how its announcement was handled. The range of emotions - which found ready expression on twitter and other social media channels - are understandable.

He is an old man, but he is also a great man. This is an emotive combination.

Did you know that he was also an artist? In the early part of the new millennium, he created a set of colour sketches of memories of his incarceration on Robben Island, to be sold to raise funds for charity.

I began looking for images of his work online. As with many other projects that involve his name and legacy, the artworks have had their share of controversy. I don’t want to talk about that either.

I want to talk about the works themselves. They have been described as “fresh, bright, well drawn, iconic symbols of the struggle in South Africa and the triumph over the tyranny of the apartheid years”.  I found representations of them in a number of places online.

In total, Nelson Mandela completed over 20 sketches of “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. The strong black crayon lines provided the guide which, when overlaid with colour, created the final picture - an eloquent technique that speaks of the man, as well as his art.

He produced an artist’s motivation statement for each piece. One of the works, The Courtyard, is accompanied by these words that relate to a tomato plant he tried to grow while in prison.

He wrote: “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.”

His sketches are extraordinary and I would love to see them. But they are minor works when compared to his legacy. I read a great blog post by Mike Stopforth and column by Verashni Pillay that set out some ideas on this better than I could. I was going to write about how “he took as his canvas a divided country and with bold and decisive brush strokes created a noble vision, painted in the colours of justice, hope, and sacrifice…”

But it strikes me that his real masterpiece has been his life, his generosity and his humanity - all summed up in that recollection of a humble tomato.

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