Opinion piece: The inspiration of Nelson Mandela

There are very few – if any – faces as instantly recognisable as the face of Nelson Mandela.

His likeness appears as frequently in corporate boardrooms as it does in the corridors of policymaking power. It appears in street art, graffiti, the work of schoolchildren, and works by master artists who create portraits, sculptures and carvings of the man who the world celebrates every July, in his birth month.

Mandela’s image reminds us that inspiration for art comes from as many sources as there are artists. Artists are inspired by an indomitable drive to seek and find fairness, justice, and a more inclusive and tolerant world. Physically and literally refusing to yield to oppression is inspiring. The warrior-like spirit that will not surrender, pressing ever forward, risking everything to build a better world is deeply inspiring.

The inspiration of Mandela endures. It inspires not only artists – great and mediocre – but the rest of us, too. People flock in their thousands to be photographed alongside one of the now iconic sculptures of Mandela at shopping malls, on the lawns of the South Africa’s executive capital and outside Parliament in Cape Town. He is South Africa’s best recognised export as his likeness stands, and magnetically draws passers-by, in Salvador, London, The Hague and New York City.

The Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria (Javett-UP) holds a number of powerful, thought-provoking and iconic works that have Mandela as subject. The gallery’s All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence in the Javett Collection includes Election ‘94 by Willie Bester, which puts Mandela at the top of a circular collage of objects – sealed ballot boxes; an AK47; musical instruments; San rock art; a compass; road markings; and other items and images that together show the texture of 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

Javett-UP’s 101 Collecting Conversations: Signature Works of a Century exhibition holds a 1:8 scale maquette of Release, the Nelson Mandela Capture Site sculpture just outside Howick. The final work in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands is as imposing as it is a deeply spiritual and quietly powerful image of Mandela.

In the final, full-scale work, artist Marco Cianfanelli erected 50 steel columns ranging from 6.5m to more than 9m tall on the site where Mandela was captured in 1962, irrevocably changing the course of South African history.

View the sculpture from a distance, and Mandela reappears liberated: literally set free. Take a closer look at the sculpture and his image disappears, his profile lost in Cianfanelli’s steel bars. In a single work, the artist both sets Mandela free, and imprisons him in steel.

It’s an example of how an intelligent, thoughtful and powerful work of art, installed at a historic site, can be a source for introspection. It attracts locals and draws visitors from around the world, reminding us of the depth of conviction, courage and leadership that it takes to lead 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 and meaning, surrounded as they are by the larger and wider South African narrative of colonisation, oppression, violence, struggle, despair, dehumanisation, division and exploitation that give way to hope, celebration and the emergence of fresh challenges. The work of South Africa’s artists sends a very clear message: Mandela brought us as far as he was able to. Now it’s up to us.

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