Arts and Culture 2007-2015


HALF ART: Doing (and re-doing) Mandela

First appeared
Friday, 05 June 2015

Nelson Mandela is a tricky subject for visual artists; producing a likeness of the great man is a high-risk undertaking. His face was famous even when he was hidden from public view. After his release from prison, he was photographed daily for two decades. These images are so vivid in our collective consciousness that attempts to generate a “realistic” portrait inevitably disappoint.

Over the years there have been some shockers. Perhaps the silliest, and one of the more prominent, is the statue in Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton. The one in front of the Union Buildings in Pretoria is a much better effort, although that proved something of a poisoned chalice for its creators, who are now referred to as “the guys who hid the rabbit in Mandela’s ear”. 

In a grotesque contribution to the Mandela portrait saga, a painting by Sifiso Ngcobo sold for R3.7million in 2013 at an ANC fundraising auction. Mediocre and kitsch, it was a ruse for an unnamed mining magnate to “donate” money to the ANC cause – an example of the cronyism that the party now exists to serve.

Of course, Ngcobo’s complicity in this is merely an extreme example of a common phenomenon; most artists are dependent on patronage in one form or another. Often patrons expect that the work they pay for will serve an ideological or political purpose. This can be inoffensively transparent, as is the case with Li Bin’s A Salute to Mandela, recently on display at the University of Johannesburg’s Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture.

Li’s enormous oil painting (38 metres long and consisting of 21 panels) came to South Africa via Beijing, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It was exhibited under the auspices of the University’s Confucius Institute – one of a growing number of such institutes in South Africa set up to “facilitate the promotion of Chinese language and cultural knowledge”.

The complexities of China’s influence across the African continent, and in particular our country’s diplomatic and economic relationship with the east Asian superpower, is a topic for another column. What I want to note here is the scope of Li’s project, and the fact that (in constructing a narrative of Mandela’s life and work) he painted Mandela’s face some 60 sixty times, at different ages and in different roles. Nonetheless, despite the painterly skill evident in this epic task, Li has not “captured” Madiba. Both the man and the icon seem to frustrate mimesis.

This seems to me a useful analogy – a warning of sorts against trying to pin down who Mandela was, what he achieved, where he failed, and what he “meant” as a symbol. Yet South African social and political commentators of various stripes insist on doing precisely this.

In May, while the Salute to Mandela was still being disassembled, novelist Thando Mgqolozana’s critique of the “whiteness” of the South African literary establishment hit the headlines. Mgqolozana joined a small but increasingly vocal chorus that blames Mandela for being too accommodating, too forgiving: “I don’t think black people are angry enough at Nelson Mandela,” he affirmed.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who sanctify Mandela – who emphasise his achievements as an individual, venerating him as a leader but in doing so subscribing to the same kind of personality cult that has allowed Jacob Zuma (and to a lesser extent Thabo Mbeki before him) to damage our public institutions. Writing in Business Day earlier this week, Gerrit Olivier suggested that in the early 1990s it was “naively” taken for granted “that future presidents would rule like Mandela”.

And then there are the R.W. Johnsons of this world, gleefully anticipating the collapse of the South African economy and the prospect of the IMF kicking the ANC out of power, just so they can say “I told you so”. Johnson recently revealed in an interview promoting his new book, How Long Will South Africa Survive?, that he sees no difference between Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma: “I think it’s all been a continuous slide from the beginning.”

It seems a pity to have to give Johnson a mention at all – but when such glib portrayals of Nelson Mandela are ventured, they must be called out and condemned.



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