Nelson Mandela: at the heart of the art of Africa

Bester Election 94
Willie Bester's painted and constructed collage, titled 'Election 94', looks back to the magnetism of Mandela and the longed-for event of South Africa's first election.

In the long, sometimes troubled and triumphant history of our continent, many leaders have risen (and some have fallen). None of them have attained the global icon status of Nelson Mandela.

At Javett-UP, we’re proud of the breadth and depth of the art of Africa that we exhibit on our gallery floors. Collectively, these works – from the Gold of Africa collection in the Mapungubwe Tower, to the 101 Collecting Conversations collection and the All in a Day’s Eye exhibition – tell Africa’s story. More than this, they tell it through the eyes of Africa’s artists: the most visionary, talented, intuitive and courageous people among us.

Taking a walk through the exhibitions helps locate Mandela in time, space and context. The art of South Africa tells of colonisation, brutal imperialism, immense hardship, exploitation and injustice. Yet it speaks, too, of a need to heal, to redeem, and to stop and correct the brutality that was so long intimately tied to South Africa, and South Africa’s people.

It’s in this context that Mandela emerged as a beacon of leadership.

We are all well acquainted with the man and his history. No need to repeat that here. However, Madiba as an inspiration bears contemplation for he inspires not only people from everyday walks of life, but artists, too. Artists are inspired by an indomitable drive to seek and find fairness, justice, and a more inclusive and tolerant world. Mandela’s warrior-like spirit that would not surrender and that pressed ever forward, risking everything to build a better world was deeply inspiring during his lifetime. It continues to inspire now.

We house a number of powerful, thought-provoking and iconic works at Javett-UP that have Mandela as subject. The gallery’s All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence includes Election ‘94 by Willie Bester that puts Mandela at the top of a circular collage of objects that depict a nation impatiently and excitedly awaiting its first democratic election. It’s a warm, compelling piece that evokes the optimism that flooded South Africa as democracy dawned in 1994.

0092 Marco Cianfanelli Release 03
A miniature copy of Marco Cianfanelli's mild-steel maquette. Cianfanelli was commissioned to build the full-sized version of this sculpture as an installation for the Nelson Mandela Capture Site, which opened in 2012.

We also hold, in our 101 Collecting Conversations: Signature Works of a Century exhibition, the 1:8 scale maquette of Release (by Marco Cianfanelli), the Nelson Mandela Capture Site sculpture in Howick.

In this single work, the sculptor both sets Mandela free, and imprisons him in steel. It reminds us of the depth of conviction, courage and leadership that it takes to bring a nation from the brink of chaos to integration and peace.

These two works, Release and Election ‘94, when viewed in the context of the broader collections at Javett-UP, grow in relevance surrounded as they are by the larger and wider South African narrative of colonisation, oppression, violence, struggle, despair, dehumanisation, division and exploitation that gives way to hope, celebration and the emergence of fresh challenges.

Let’s hold fast to Mandela’s legacy and remember the man as we confront what continues to divide us today.