Amita Makan Nelson Mandela | | Art in South Africa
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Nelson Mandela

Decoding the Colour of Nelson Mandela

For a Black South African woman of Indian origin, it is impossible to understand South Africa outside of its political and historical context. When Apartheid was formally instituted in 1948, South African identities were defined primarily in terms of race. South Africans were categorized as either Black or White. We were favored or discriminated against on the basis of our colour.

What then constitutes being a South African today? For me, the best part of being South African is about expressing our common humanity. Notions of femininity, masculinity, white, black, European, and African are derivatives of a common humanity. While these categories contribute and help to shape our identities and the notion of the Self, these categories can be manipulated to create divisions in our common humanity, as our South African past attests.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela represents the essence of a common and global humanity. A democratic South Africa and Mandela have become synonymous. It is no longer possible to celebrate being South African without recognizing and honoring Nelson Mandela and his role in delivering our freedom, democracy and common humanity. When Mandela was liberated, South Africa was liberated. Mandela unified South Africa. He remains a symbol of hope to heal xenophobia, racism and sexism around the world. Nelson Mandela’s ideals are a constant.

I was inspired to do a portrait of Nelson Mandela, entitled ‘Decoding the Colour of Nelson Mandela’ (canvas size 85cm x 85 cm), based on what he stands for in South Africa and globally. The oil painting, “an image of an image”, is an interpretation of a photograph of Nelson Mandela taken soon after his release from prison. The painting in black and white is symbolic, having connotations of our Apartheid history.

The process of painting with black and white paints, and mixing, manipulating, blending, diluting, rubbing and erasing those colours, creates a variety of tones of grey. In his book “Without Color”, based on the oeuvres of German artist Gerhard Richter, Reinhard Spieler observes, “…grey is nothing but a sum of all colours. If you mix all colours together you get grey”.1

I then wondered if we mix people, as I have done with paint, how will it culminate? Will the mixing together of people be an embodiment of our ‘sameness’ rather than our differences? Out of my process of working and reworking the colours black and white, Nelson Mandela emerges. The absence of colour became pertinent in my painting, diminishing the differences and distinctions that divide us.

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