Activist and Artist

I was going to bring you the art works of famous activists who engaged in art endeavours when they weren’t protesting. Plenty of artists engage in protesting but the reverse doesn’t seem to follow. My research has not been very successful as I have only found one person to fit the criterion.

And that person was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1918–2013) the South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was the country's first black head of state and the first elected in a fully representative democratic election. His government focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid by tackling institutionalised racism and fostering racial reconciliation. Ideologically an African nationalist and socialist, he served as President of the African National Congress (ANC) party from 1991 to 1997. (Wikipedia)

From 1964 to 1990 he was in prison, at first on Robben Island, the inspiration for some of his artworks, and later on the mainland. Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the man who released him from incarceration, President Frederik Willem de Klerk, because they agreed on a peaceful transition to majority rule. Below is Mandela's The Window where Table Mountain was a symbol of hope for freedom.


My Robben Island is the title of artwork by Nelson Mandela and the Robben Island series was sketched and completed by Nelson Mandela between March and June of 2003. The series is made up of 21 charcoal sketches and subjects from Robben Island now made into lithographs. They are images that Mr. Mandela found deeply meaningful during the period of his incarceration on the island ( The Cell (below) poignantly and starkly represents the 27 years he spent in prison.


The sketches have been executed in simple black charcoal lines with selected elements highlighted in pure pastel colours. The symbolism behind Nelson Mandela’s choice in use of line, colour and composition is significant. Colour has significant symbolic value African culture and it is this, and the simple use of line, that plays a dominant role in all the drawings.( Below is The Church the only refuge for the prisoners on Robben Island.


The Harbour offered slight contact with the outside world as ships brought letters and news from beyond the bars. (Credit:

In contrast The Lighthouse, although safeguarding the ships, was a constant reminder to the prisoners that escape through the treacherous waters surrounding Robben Island was impossible.

In a second My Robben Island series of prints significant prison features drawn by Mandela are juxtaposed with commissioned photographs of the same feature and Mandela's handwritten motivation behind the painting. Unfortunately it was impossible to get an image quality that would allow you to read his words. For a full text on the My Robben Island series of prints please follow this link.

Below is The Ward.
Part of the hand written motivation By Nelson Mandela reads: The hospital I have sketched here served as a vital and secret link between us and the rest of the world. Through the hospital, news about our families, our friends, the struggle and everyday events outside the prion would trickle through. It became one of our most important lifelines to the outside world. (


Next we have The Tennis Court.
...we painted the cement courtyard surface to create a traditional tennis court layout. Strangely, Robben Island was the first opportunity for me to play tennis since university... ( An illustration of how bizarre life can be! (My words).


And whilst the open tennis court gave a little pleasure in contrast The Courtyard ...was an unfriendly, empty and barren place. It was a somber reminder of where I was. From the beginning of my imprisonment I asked to start a garden to change this... (


And of course when most of us think Prison we think The Tower and here is Mandela's depiction of this structure. the prison, the towers looked over us throughout the day. In this sketch I have attempted to pull together the two elements that overshadowed our lives for so many years: the towers and the ever restraining barbed wire…..The use of more cheerful colours in the sketch is my way of presenting how we feel today. (


Mandela’s Walk is probably the most unexpected of his images; for as he says: we worked the quarries for thirteen years as part of our hard labour sentence. It was hard work, but we did not mind, as it meant we could leave the prison compound and have the “freedom” to walk and talk together on the long road to the quarry. (


Impressions of Mandela portrays a lithographed impression of Nelson Mandela’s left hand with hand prints of children. And on the right a lithographed impression of Nelson Mandela’s right hand displaying Africa in the palm of his hand.


And finally, The Struggle Series is
a collection of five charming line drawing tracings and one handwritten motivation by Nelson Mandela.

The Hero Image today is Bars and Key also called Freedom contains two strong symbols of the 27 years of Nelson Mandela's imprisonment. His fingers have slowly and deliberately drawn down the page in heavy black paint to recreate the bars of his cell. The key to his cell has been replicated and cast into an edition of 3000, each numbered and signed personally by Nelson Mandela.


Anne Newman

Oil Painter in realistic genre style, predominantly buildings and people. To continue the discussion contact Anne on or phone +61 407 516 522

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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