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When the imminent release of Nelson Mandela from prison was announced in 1990, few people had any idea what he looked like. Not only had he been out of the public eye for nearly 27 years but, as he was banned, it was a crime to publish photographs of him.
Two of the alternative newspapers of the day, the then-Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian) and Vrye Weekblad, independently decided to rectify that.
Using photographs dating from the 1960s as their base images of Mandela, they proceeded to “age” the pictures in a pseudo-scientific sort of way, trying to predict the traces of time, trouble and decay on the human clay, while retaining the unique human spark of the personality.
Both failed miserably, producing images that not only did not look anything like the triumphant icon that was Mandela on the home stretch of his long walk to freedom out of Victor Verster Prison, but which also were hardly human.
We’ve come a distance since those first attempts at portraiture in the dark, but still it needs to be said that, for somebody as famous as Nelson Mandela, it is surprising how few decent portraits of him are to be found in the enormous landscape over which they are scattered.
Whether as oil paintings in sanctimonious boardrooms, bronzes in public spaces, or as T-shirts and wire-sculptures in flea markets all over South Africa and beyond, the images just do not live up to the myth.
It’s not always for lack of trying.
One project that, in scale and conception, if not inherent taste, did seek to do justice to the reputation was a Dutch firm’s proposal for a 12-storey construction in Mandela’s image – which would include a restaurant, a conference centre, everything short of an ice rink – jutting from halfway up Table Mountain like a giant green carbuncle, as journalist John Yeld put it.
Less extravagant but barely less transformative of the urban environment was the recent demand emanating some weeks ago from the National Council of Provinces that the equestrian Louis Botha in front of Parliament be pulled down and replaced with an effigy of Madiba.
And earlier this year the City of Cape Town announced – during this “year of Mandela” – that it was considering putting up a monument to him on the Parade.
From Shanghai in China, newspapers reported about a Belgian artist, Phil Akashi, whose portrait of Mandela was “forged by pounding the wall 27 000 times with a boxing glove which bore the Chinese character for ‘freedom’ “.
Closer to home you can find Mandela in a thousand different images on Greenmarket Square or curio stalls all the way to the V&A Waterfront.
Or pop in at Mandela Rhodes Place for one of the few images that at least begins to get it right – an over-lifesize construction celebrating freedom and democracy in chicken wire.
Even if one excuses the enthusiasm of so many and half-talented artists to formalise their admiration, it is still remarkable how few have succeeded in making anything like art.
Of course, over the years that he physically entered public spaces, Mandela was photographed and filmed hundreds of times.
These “un-intervened” images with their eye-catching immediacy and global exposure set the bar high for those attempting other means of constructing an “artistic” version.
Why is it so difficult to make a decent drawing, illustration or painting of Mandela?
Why have so many who have tried, failed to get the Madame Tussaud version in bronze right?
Why, on the other hand, has Mandela been so easy to sketch in a few cartoon strokes, à la Zapiro for instance?
Answers are not obvious, but maybe some humans are simply not “configured” for representation in the monumental manner, but live better in movement and their engagement with others.
The list of Mandela monstrosities is long, ranging from the first effort on a gold coin to the dreadful caricature, misplaced in the superficial Sandton shopping mall, the Stalinist version at his former prison near Paarl, to the pathetic head in London, and the frankly amateurish incarnation on Bloemfontein’s Naval Hill.
But in among all this aesthetic detritus, there is, happily, at least one that comes off – the Mandela image among the bronzes of the four Nobel Prize winners at the V&A Waterfront.
That stocky image of Mandela – like those of FW de Klerk, Desmond Tutu and Albert Luthuli – comes with a quirky sense of humour – but also some thought and vision in the referencing of traditions of puppetry and African figuration by sculptor Claudette Schreuders.
As such it makes a subtle counter-comment on the grand imperial tradition that compelled bronze and marble heroes to be ostentatiously staged in public spaces: generals on horseback, politicians with raised arms and presidents in gigantic temples.
Another honourable exception lies in the structure conceived by the artist Marco Cianfanelli at the so-called “Capture Site” in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.
Called Release, the monument comprises 50 steel columns between 6.5m and 9.5m high that sit in the beautiful landscape and, when looked at from a specific vantage point, come together to form a two-dimensional image of Nelson Mandela’s head.
The image comes from a photograph of Mandela.
Another public piece by the inventive Cianfanelli has been unveiled in Fox Street, Joburg.
Again using a photograph – this time Bob Gosani’s well-known image of Mandela as a young boxer – Cianfanelli sidesteps pomposity to make a sculpture that is human and down to earth.
By contrast, Cape Town’s city authorities plastered a giant bill-board in celebration of Mandela on the side of one of the city’s ugliest buildings. The best one can say of this is that the vibrant intrigue of the colourful shirt contrived for the humungous portrait stuck on to the Cape Town Civic Centre’s east-facing window wall is far more engaging than the face that tops it.
For those who are calling for a bronze Mandela on the Grand Parade or in the place of Louis Botha and his horse, there’s a solid lesson here.
Bad art can happen all too easily out of good intentions. Getting it right is a lot harder. - Weekend Argus