This past weekend, a friend and I went to the lobby of a building, looking for its exhibit of Nelson Mandela’s sketches from his time in prison on Robben Island. The exhibit was elegant in its simplicity, nothing boasting or grandiose, all the better to draw out the same sense of elegance-in-simplicity that Mandela’s sketches evoke.
The exhibit drew connections between South Africa’s time of apartheid and the American south’s own Jim Crow era, and lining the entry were dates and comparable events in South Africa and in the southern United States, not that many years apart from one another.
Etched into cool, frosted glass, this view greeted us before we stepped into the exhibit room – really just a pass-through area from one building to another – as if inviting us to enter into the prison itself:
A cold, stark greeting for visitors
The rest of the window that looked back toward the lobby was filled with two doors that had been salvaged from old tobacco warehouses. These, too, hint at an oppressive prison of sorts.
Jim Crow era doors that marked separate entrances
I’ve seen pictures and movie depictions of such doors, but I don’t know that I’ve ever stood in front of actual doors marked with that era’s shame. It was a relief to turn away from them to encounter Mandela’s sketches, writings and own thoughts everywhere, even on the floor:
Mandela returned to Robben Island with a photographer to capture a small part of what he had experienced there, but Mandela didn’t want to use the photographs or his own sketches incite anger. Rather, he wanted to inspire and give courage and show that this place had been unable to break his spirit or his resolve or his hope or his character. He accompanied each sketch or series of sketches with carefully written words that help the visitor step into Mandela’s shoes.
Nelson describes his desire for these sketches.
In these sketches entitled: My Robben Island, I have attempted to colour the island sketches in ways that reflect the positive light in which I view it. This is what I would like to share with people around the world and, hopefully, also project the idea that even the most fantastic dreams can be achieved if we are prepared to endure life’s challenges. NMandela
The colors Mandela used in his sketches were cheerful and bright, and I was struck in this first series that he had drawn windows without the bars that are so clearly there in the photograph:
The hospital offered a different sort of freedom in prison: the exchange of information.
Bars on the windows
Mandela wrote of political prisoners feigning illness to go to the hospital, as it was the only place where they could get word of what was going on in the outside world. Imagine the hope that sustained them on these hospital visits, as they heard of a world changing outside their island prison. Perhaps that’s why Mandela left the bars out of the windows in his sketch. It was a room of some small freedom.
The stark prison yard
Mandela wrote about memories of marking a tennis court in this yard and of planting a small garden. These activities were not allowed at first, but eventually the prisoners were able to convince the guards to let them use the space for something other than sitting and marching.
He wrote of the wonderful outlet of the physical activity, and though the gardening brought life, it brought poignant and painful reminders, too:
The memory of a cherished tomato plant
A powerful memory that I have is of a beautiful tomato plant that I coaxed from tiny seed to tender seedling to a strong plant that gave plump bright red juicy tomatoes. Despite my efforts the plant began to wither and die and nothing I did would heal it. When it died I took it carefully from the soil, washed its roots and buried it in a corner of the garden. I felt sad. It once again reminded me of where I was, and the hopelessness I felt at being unable to nourish other relationships in my life. My wife, my children, my family and my friends. It made me realise the beauty, simplicity and sacred value of family, of loved ones and friends. I swore to myself that I would never take another human being, their friendship or their love for granted ever again.
An inescapable reminder
Mandela featured the prison tower prominently in several of his sketches, and he wrote of returning from grueling work outside of the prison walls that at least enabled the men to do something physical. The prisoners talked as they walked back to the prison, but Mandela noted that they became quiet as the tower grew closer.
My favorite sketch
The prisoners found ways to remain hopeful, in spite of their bleak circumstances and surroundings. Though the prisoners weren’t allowed inside the church, it served as a beacon to them.
Mandela’s cell, with his possessions colored, another element of the hope he found in the prison.
Mandela’s jail cell was small: he could walk it in three paces and said that when he lay down, his feet brushed one wall and he could feel the other wall against his head.
An 8×8 outline of a Robben Island jail cell. Mandela’s account suggests a slightly smaller space.
Imprisoned for 27 years, it’s no wonder Mandela felt his was a long walk to freedom.
a long walk …
The curators for the exhibit grouped Mandela’s sketches under four headers, and it was then that I understood the ellipsis in the exhibit’s name.
… to freedom
Mandela’s journey was a long walk … to justice … to equality … to opportunity … to freedom. And somewhere along the way, he was able to shed any bitterness that might have conquered lesser men.
What strikes you most about Mandela’s sketches? What inspires you most about his long walk?