A Newbie Gets Schooled in Mandela’s Artwork

I’ve never claimed to be an artist, nor have I ever claimed to enjoy art. More than once—in an attempt to become more worldly—I have trudged into a gallery to observe what was on display. Usually this amounts to me wandering around and questioning how on earth this could be considered art. I look at images of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and consider it art. I don’t know what it means, but it must be art—if only because the amount of dedication it took to paint such an intricate ceiling deserves my wholehearted respect.

But walking downtown past the Long-Sharp Gallery and reading the sign “Nelson Mandela: The Artist” caught my attention. Is there anything that man did not do? Sheer curiosity influenced me to enter the gallery and ask for an interview over the collection. Nicole M.L. Sharp, director of Long-Sharp Gallery, was gracious enough to share her opinion of Mandela’s collection—and answer my ultimate question of how these seemingly rudimentary pieces could be considered art


Reflections of Robben Island – Series II


Mandela’s Walk is only one of five in this series of Mandela’s collection “Reflections of Robben Island – Series II.” After his imprisonment, Mandela revisited the island and brought along a camera man to photograph the prison so that he could later sketch these same images. But if his name weren’t displayed on a plaque next to the piece, I would assume a child, not Mandela, had rendered the artwork. At first glance, I felt cheated that someone had failed to tell me my little sister’s doodles could potentially be worth $10,500. Note to self: Hock doodles immediately. Why, exactly, was the execution of Mandela’s sketch so much more meaningful than the photo—and, most importantly, why is it considered art?

 Art Guru: For Sharp, true and meaningful artwork means more than what’s lying on the surface. The lines, curves, and choice of color are simply vehicles used to transport a deeper meaning. Sharp points out that Mandela defies the reality of his drab prison environment, and instead turns the experience into a collection of positive impressions (as well as an opportunity to raise money for charity). Sharp looks at the image of Mandela’s reality and then at the way he chose to portray his imprisonment and says, “I don’t look at this and see just the colors; I see the whole story behind it as well, and that’s what makes it important. That is what makes it art.”


My Robben Island – Series I

Long-Sharp Gallery

Newbie: The Window is part of Mandela’s “My Robben Island – Series I” collection—also renderings based on the photographer’s images. While I was staring at The Window with my chin in hand—hopefully appearing to ponder wistfully—I thought that perhaps the point is to say your imprisonment is only what you make of it? Obviously those are bars—as to why they are so cheerful and bright, I’ve not the slightest inkling. If I were ever imprisoned, my rendition would be saturated with self-pity, not cheery purple and orange hues.

Art Guru: For Sharp, it’s not about the seemingly rudimentary sheen coating Mandela’s pieces, but rather the use of these tones to demonstrate his attitude and outlook on the future after his imprisonment. “It’s reconciliation after strife,” says Sharp. Mandela’s first colored series is a far cry from his reality. The LSG director credits the bright colors saturating Mandela’s works to his upbringing in South Africa, whose culture is known for its bright and vibrant tones, and these sketches are simply another tie to Mandela’s home and heritage.


Key and Bars

Long-Sharp Gallery

Newbie: Backpedaling against my prior claims to Mandela’s “rudimentary” artwork, I did consider this a piece of art—whatever that word may mean. Similar to the Sistine Chapel ceiling, I can’t say why I consider it art, except that it seems creative. It’s titled Key and Bars, so I could at least grasp they’re not random lines with the addition of a key resting at the bottom. The “bars” appear to be painted by fingers, which is all the more creative and therefore deserves bonus points, in my opinion. Perhaps Mandela is stating his freedom remains in his own hands … then again, probably not.

Art Guru: I asked why Mandela’s time in prison seemed to dominate his collection, and Sharp obligingly offered an interesting piece of the past. When Anna Bonham-Carter, owner of Belgravia Gallery (in association with Long-Sharp Gallery) in London, and Laura Walford, the gallery manager, were solicited to represent Mandela’s artwork, they were initially shown the first works he had created—a series of hands drawn in black and white called the Struggle Series. Bonham-Carter was taken with the works, but also suggested that, from a public perspective, something with more color might be better received. In agreement, Mandela felt that he was best known for his imprisonment on Robben Island. According to Sharp, when attempting to raise money for charities, “you work with what you’ve got. The world knows him for spending decades in prison and then coming out to be the President of South Africa.”


Hand of Africa

hand of africa

Newbie: Upon roaming the Long-Sharp Gallery, the title of this work stopped me in my tracks—if only for the shred of familiarity I associate with the title. I don’t live entirely under a rock; I knew this piece was particularly unique. Who doesn’t know Nelson Mandela as “the man with Africa in the palm of his hand?” I’d seen the hand print, but I always thought someone had staged it that way, until Sharp informed me it was completely unintentional.

Art Guru: When asked about the history, Sharp dives into storytelling mode. Mandela was signing lithographs that discussed his life and encounters with important Brits such as Princess Diana, Queen Elizabeth, and Margaret Thatcher, when he had to take a call.  Bonham-Carter and Walford stepped into the other room. They saw several handprints drying out, as they had been trying to find one of Mandela’s hand prints that could demonstrate good life and love lines. Anna was the one who noticed that one of the prints in particular held a shape closely resembling that of Africa in the middle of Mandela’s palm. The hand prints were meant for the Impressions of Africa series—a display of Mandela’s hand print surrounded by those of children whose parents had died of AIDS. It was purely by chance that Anna and Laura happened to stumble across the piece that soon became the Hand of Africa.

If touring an art gallery filled with the works of one of the most influential people in history, alongside Director Nicole M.L. Sharp, has taught me anything, it is that I should never again be unaccompanied in a museum. On a more serious note, as the exhibit will conclude this weekend, the Long-Sharp Gallery will celebrate Mandela’s collection this Friday evening from 6-9 p.m. with a First Friday event. I encourage even the non-art lovers like me, and the art gurus like Sharp to attend this exhibit before its closes to obtain a personal glimpse of the man, the president, and the artist—Nelson Mandela.