Ruth is the Editor-In-Chief of MILK Books and PQ Blackwell Ltd., based in Auckland, New Zealand, publishers of Mandela: The Authorized Portrait—a photographic history of the great man. Ruth's heartfelt and insightful article represents the intersection of the artistic and the newsworthy. DepthRADIUS is honored to present Ruth's memories of Nelson Mandela as well as her as well as a unique perspective on his mastery of image and visual communication. From round the other side of the world, thank you, Ruth, and welcome to depthRADIUS!
DepthRADIUS is proud to present this remembrance of Nelson Mandela by guest reporter Ruth Hobday as part of the July 18 international celebration of what would have been Mandela's 96th birthday. Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid revolutionary and one of the great moral and political leaders of our time, dedicated his life to fighting racial oppression and remarkably forged peace in South Africa.
The Power of Art & Photographs
of Nelson Mandela in the
Transformation of South Africa
In August of 2004, our boutique publishing house in New Zealand, PQ Blackwell, received an e-mail informing us that Mr. Nelson Mandela had granted us permission to produce the definitive illustrated book on his life, Mandela: The Authorized Portrait.
That message remains the single most exciting moment of my working life and it marked the beginning of my involvement with a man who had always been a personal hero. I was a trifle overawed and approached my new role with enormous trepidation.
When I first met Mandela, I heard him long before I saw him. He was coming down the corridor at the Nelson Mandela Foundation that separated his private office from the formal sitting room where he received guests, and he was joking around with his assistant, Zelda la Grange. He had a deep, booming voice, filled with laughter and, it seemed to me as we waited rather nervously in the sitting room, the voice of a much younger man than the 87-year old I was expecting.
When he entered he was leaning heavily on Zelda’s arm and I was to learn later that the great icon’s knees had become so bad he could barely walk without assistance. Mandela, however, steadfastly refused to use a walking stick because it would make him appear frail and, as it became quickly clear to me during our conversation, there was nothing frail about the warmth of his welcome, his quick and ready wit or his obvious affection for his former cellmates.
I have spent some considerable time looking at images of Mandela. Every piece of art, every representation of Mandela I could find, was based on a photograph. Clearly this makes sense… it’s rather hard to ask one of the world’s most famous people to sit for you, particularly if, as in his case, he was rather enjoying his retirement. But it did make me remember Mr. Mandela’s knees, and think about his stubborn insistence on not using a cane: to wonder about Mandela’s desire to control his image; how his life and his immense presence on the cultural and political map of the late 20th and early 21st centuries can be understood through those representations.
To better understand Mandela’s desire to project a certain exterior image of himself as a source of empowerment, we must reflect on events that shaped Mandela from an early age. He grew up in the Eastern Cape of South Africa at the knee of his father, a respected advisor to the Chief Regent of the Thembu people who meted out ‘justice under a tree’ in the age-old African practice of people gathering beneath a tree to discuss important matters. When Nelson’s father died, the acting king of the AbaThembu people became the 12-year-old boy’s legal guardian. It was there in the royal household that Mandela learned the incredible power of image and imagery. One of the young Mandela’s tasks was to press the king’s many suits, and he learned the king’s attention to his wardrobe was not simply one of vanity; it was about dignity and self-worth. It was also about projecting an image of himself as a leader. This was a man who, in the rural Eastern Cape of the 1920s, would travel amongst his people in the back of a chauffeur-driven Ford wearing a three-piece suit and hat. A more impressive display of his royal status would be hard to imagine.
Early on in his legal career as a young ‘man about town’ Mandela knew that his own car and expensive suits were going to be important accessories in establishing his status as a successful attorney and up-and-coming politician.
The young Mandela’s stylishness was more than vanity. It was about his control of his image. This was a projection of himself and his position at a time when writing or voicing any kind of opposition to the apartheid government was forbidden by law. The dignity of his wardrobe and his bearing cried out in their contrast with his silenced voice in a way more powerful than a protest chant rising from the impoverished streets.
Mandela the Advocate became “Mandela the Chief” when he arrived in court after his arrest in 1962. By this evolution in his rebellion, Mandela had been a wanted man for some time and the white South African press had dubbed him the ‘Black Pimpernel’ after the fictional ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’ of the French Revolution. Arriving in court to be charged, he chose to dress in a traditional kaross instead of his trademark suit to proclaim the heritage and history of his people. The effect on the crowds of onlookers was electrifying and, as he was hauled off to prison to await trial, the call and response cries of “Amandla!” (“Power!”) “Ngawethu!” (“Is ours!”) were taken up in the streets. The Black Pimpernel may have been captured but he was now the hero of the people. Unknown to most of them was the fact that Mandela hadn’t been able to get hold of an actual kaross, traditionally made from a leopard-skin, but instead Winnie had provided him with one made out of jackal skins stitched together.
Another important decision made by this people’s leader—suddenly facing the next 27 years separated from his people on Robben Island—was the decision to grow a beard. His more conservative African National Congress comrades were wary of the more provocative radical look. Mandela remained steadfast and his creation of a new ‘Mandela the Revolutionary’ look became the enduring image of him throughout his Robben Island incarceration. According to friend, comrade, and fellow prisoner Ahmed Kathrada, who occupied the cell next to Mandela’s on Robben Island, “By the time he went underground in 1961, his most recognizable feature was his beard. Among other things he had to forsake his stylish and expensive clothing. But above all he had to shave his beard. He agreed to most suggestions but simply refused to shave.” A photograph of Mandela taken at an Algerian training camp earlier in 1962, complete with a revolutionary’s beard, made him one of the most instantly recognizable figures in the world and led to him being dubbed The Black Pimpernel. Ironically it was this same image that became the touchstone of the international anti-apartheid movement.
Once he was jailed, Mandela had been silenced.
Even quoting Mandela in South Africa became a criminal offence, so the only available voice became an artistic one. The ‘Mandela the Revolutionary’ photo became a template for art that called for an end to apartheid. It also became the basis for thousands of international campaigns around the world that used it on posters advertising anti-apartheid meetings and rallies, and at fundraisers and concerts such as the watershed concert at London’s Wembley Stadium in July 1988 celebrating Mandela’s 70th birthday.
One sometimes looks back on history as being somehow inevitable. But was Mandela’s eventual release and the dismantling of apartheid inevitable? Perhaps, but what is absolutely clear is that Mandela’s beard and the ‘Mandela the Revolutionary’ images became the most potent symbols of the worldwide movement that eventually made the inevitable actually occur. Artists used these images, re-interpreted them, added their own artistic vision, and plastered the streets with these re-imagined Mandelas, and in turn played an important role in contributing to the international pressure that led to Mandela’s liberation and the collapse of the racist and oppressive regime that had incarcerated him.
Mandela recognized this only too well, saying after his release,
“During the worst years of repression, when all avenues of legitimate protest were closed by emergency legislation, it was the arts that articulated the plight and the democratic aspirations of our people.”
It was Art in the form of those shared images carrying his message to the people. It was Art that had the power to transmit that message around the globe. It was Art that helped shape and change South Africa and the world for the better. And this should be something worth noting by present day artists.
Being an artist can be a lonely business. There are times when an artist wonders if what they do is either worthwhile or important and times when not creating art can seem a much easier prospect than continuing. But, as the artistic renderings of Mandela show, art and images have power, and that power can change the world. One need look no further than the Banksy-inspired graffiti on the streets of the world's largest cities to see how artists continue to fight oppression with the power of shared images. Or the Mandela/Obama ‘Hope’ poster mash-up with its collision of images and meaning that extends their once individual use as a means to continue to convey ideas. Today, more than ever perhaps, art continues to be one of our most important and powerful voices and, thanks to the free and unfettered sharing of images in communities such as deviantART, individuals are able to distribute their art more quickly than ever in order to exchange ideas and effect change.
To return to The Black Pimpernel and his infamous beard, it is interesting to note that this particular image is seldom, if ever, used as a template by today’s artists. This may be because upon his release Mandela created a new image, a new persona for himself; one that immediately consigned his beard to the back catalogue of history. As Mandela completed his long walk to freedom in 1990 he left prison in a crisp white shirt, suit and tie, arm raised and fist clenched in victory. He had become ‘Mandela the Politician’ and was soon to become ‘Mandela the President’.
This was not, however, the end of Mandela’s powerful use of wardrobe and image.
At the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final Mandela chose to manipulate his image once again. Rugby was the sport of choice for the white Afrikaner population and the jersey of the Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team, was a strong source of Afrikaner pride. This, in turn, had made it a symbol of white oppression for the black population during years of the apartheid regime. When Mandela walked onto the pitch to greet the victorious South African team at the end of the game wearing that jersey, he captured the hearts of the largely white Afrikaner crowd and in so doing toppled one of last remaining barriers to reconciliation in South Africa without saying a word.
After his retirement Mandela adopted his now famous ‘personality’ shirts that signified a more approachable, less political figure.
It is these ‘Mandela the Elder Statesman’ shirts that most of us now remember him by. It was what he was wearing the day I first met him. I was shaking with nerves, of course, but the combination of colorful shirt, immense charm, and his delightful, somewhat mischievous sense of humor put me completely at my ease. It’s always daunting to meet your heroes but it’s an intensely gratifying experience when you discover they are everything you’d hoped they’d be and much, much more.
It was ‘Mandela the Elder Statesman’ I met that day. An old man stubbornly refusing to bend to the tyranny of his aging knees but also a man who had always been keenly aware of his image and its various meanings. Advocate, Chief, Revolutionary, President, Unifier, Elder—all images carefully thought out and deployed as vital tools in the struggle against, and victory over, apartheid. I feel tremendously grateful to have had the subsequent privilege of working on a number of books based on his life and his writings over the last decade of his life until his passing last year.
Since that moment he has been transformed one final time, into ‘Mandela the Icon’.
July 18 has been designated Nelson Mandela Day to “inspire individuals to take action to help change the world for the better, and to empower communities everywhere.” The message behind the campaign is simple—that each individual has the ability and responsibility to impact positive change every day. Indeed, the image of Mandela walking free from prison in 1990, fist held triumphantly in the air, is the basis for the official Nelson Mandela Day logo — a powerful graphic derived from Mandela’s very last steps in his own personal ‘long walk to freedom’.
Mandela spent more than 67 years serving his community, his country and the world. This number is symbolic of how people can start to do the same—one small step at a time—and in so doing become part of a continuous, global movement for good. I invite you to use 67 minutes today, tomorrow, and the day after that, to create or share art that reminds us that we can all make a difference, however big or small, and make every day a ‘Mandela Day.’
Because, ultimately, it’s not only the creation of art, but the sharing of it that makes it so potent. Sharing and distributing your art empowers it as a vital and important tool for change and reminds us that as long as we have art, we have a voice.
“Good art is invariably universal and timeless.”
Nelson Mandela, from a letter to his daughter, Zindzi Mandela, written on Robben Island.
Let it Ring Out Forever
There is a name, three syllables, that is a totem, a poem, a song of liberation and freedom that every day lifts lives pinioned by barbed wire and disappeared behind walls of cold stone. It is a name that sparks a burst of light in the brain of she who speaks it or he who hears it—a burst of illumination lighting pathways out of oppression that eschew violence in favor of the more powerful truth and strength of peaceful and creative protest.
There is a name for a man whose living example burst asunder the invisible manacles of enslaved millions in their own lands. That man’s “long walk” has now crossed him over from living role model to global spiritual legend.
May it ring like a garland of brightly burning bells revolving in our minds and guiding our hearts. DeviantART salutes Nelson Mandela and all those whose life’s art, like Mandela’s example, steadily cut like purifying streams of water through the hardest stone of prison walls.
Ours is a time of petrified ideology, non-negotiation and deafness hailed as strength. It is a time when we need not despair of any forward progress. We have the life of Mandela to guide our efforts, our art and our lives. In facing impossible obstruction with joy in our hearts—this is how we do honor to the great man.
Mandela! Let it ring out forever.
MILK Books is donating 67 cents for everyone who joins its database, plus the chance to receive one of five framed gallery prints from the Nelson Mandela Quotations Collection featuring original artwork based on Mandela’s words.
For The Reader
- How have you experience racism in your own life?
- Can art be used to cure racism?
- How did you first become aware of Nelson Mandela and his struggle to free South Africa from apartheid?
- Have you ever created and displayed art as an expression of protest? Do you think your artwork amplified your message? Better than a manifesto? Did you feel liberated in artistically presenting a political expression? Did you feel in any way endangered?
- What’s the most powerful protest you’ve ever witnessed in your lifetime?