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Thursday, 26 September, 2002, 08:42 GMT 09:42 UK
Mandela lights the gloom
Nelson Mandela's The Harbour
The pictures are brighter than viewers may expect

It is a very long way from Robben Island to the leafy streets of Belgravia in central London.

But that is where the artwork of Nelson Mandela is hanging, inspired by his time in South Africa's most notorious prison.

The face of the man regarded by millions as the world's greatest living statesman - the secular world's equivalent of the Pope - looks out from the tiny Belgravia Gallery over a row of immaculate and extremely expensive Georgian houses.

It is an irony Mandela would no doubt appreciate.

Despite "retiring" from public life, the leader's utterances on world affairs - whether the war on Iraq or strife on his own continent - still carry immense weight.

Nelson Mandela
Millions hang on Mandela's words
So his five simple charcoal and pastel line drawings, and the handwritten explanation of his artistic feelings about Robben Island, are likely to attract frenzied attention.

Each of the sketches - executed by Mandela earlier this year to raise money for children and HIV victims through his trust - has a run of 500 signed lithographs, and for many people the signature alone will persuade them to part with thousands.

But the lithograph prints will not fulfil expectations.

Those anticipating dark reminiscences of a dark place will be surprised to see that Mandela's vision of the place where he spent much of his 27 years imprisonment is brilliant and luminous.

Mandela's sketches are the exact opposite of what one would expect of somebody incarcerated, far from friends and at the mercy of cruel warders.

One view shows Table Mountain out of a cell window, although the catalogue asserts Mandela could have had no such view.

Detail from Nelson Mandela's The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse was a beacon
The window is multicoloured and the grass resembles the kind of verdant carpet that would not be out of place at Lords.

Another shows the inside of his cell, a small pile of personal possessions picked out in purple, orange, yellow and red, emphasising their place as a beacon in the life of men coming to terms with the absence of a life.

The other beacon portrayed is the island's lighthouse, a symbol of escape but also of the organisation that kept Mandela and his peers on the island.

But the most poignant sketch is of the harbour, the lights and flat buildings almost resembling beach huts on a 1930s lido. Only the tyres on the wall reveal what the viewer is really seeing, the place where political prisoners land, ready to be broken.

Potential purchasers may believe these paintings are about the final stages of the re-appropriation of Robben Island.

Detail from Nelson Mandela's cell window
Realism is not the issue
A place of imprisonment since the British dropped 10 transported colonists there in the 17th Century, the last political prisoners left in 1991. In 1999, it became South Africa's first World Heritage Site, with part of it renamed after its most famous prisoner.

Mandela is legendary for his forgiveness and these sketches show he forgives the place as well as the people.

With a price of 8,450 for the complete set unframed, and varying prices for individual prints depending on frames, these visions of Robben Island do not come cheap.

As art, the simple, childlike lines are unremarkable, but as a statement they are priceless.

The Robben Island series is on show at the Belgravia Gallery from Thursday 26 September.

See also:

30 Aug 02 | Entertainment
28 Aug 01 | Africa
28 Oct 98 | Truth and Reconciliation
29 Aug 01 | Africa
24 Jul 01 | Africa
14 Jul 98 | Africa
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