Madiba’s Robben Island prints fetch R240 000

Mandela Window Robben Island “The Window” shows a view of Table Mountain through the bars of Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island. The mountain was not, in fact, visible from any cell window; instead, the piece is meant to symbolise the prisoner Mandela’s longing for freedom and beauty. (Click to enlarge)


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A set of five limited-edition lithograph prints of Robben Island prison scenes painted by South African statesman Nelson Mandela over 13 years ago fetched £13 500 – over R240 000 – at Bellmans Auctioneers in West Sussex, England, on Wednesday 8 October.

Mandela, who died last year at the age of 95, spent 18 of his 27 years in jail on Robben Island. Remarkably, he painted the images from memory, in 2001 – 11 years after his release, and close on 20 years after he was moved from the island to a prison on the mainland.

The 59- by 39-centimetre lithographs depict the view from Mandela’s cell window, the interior of his cell showing his few belongings, the harbour that brought prisoners onto Robben Island, and the island’s lighthouse and church.

Mandela Church small “The Church” shows the church used by prison staff, a place of worship out of bounds to the prisoners. (Click to enlarge)

“Today when I look at Robben Island I see it as a celebration of the struggle and a symbol of the finest qualities of the human spirit, rather than as a monument to the brutal tyranny and oppression of apartheid,” Mandela wrote in his handwritten artist’s motivation for the sketches, which was included in the sale.

Each of the lithographs was produced in a limited edition of 100, making up a total of 500. They comprise Mandela’s first Robben Island Series, produced to help fund a number of charities.

“Robben Island is a place where courage endured in the face of endless hardship, a place where people kept on believing when it seemed their dreams were hopeless and a place where wisdom and determination overcame fear and human frailty,” Mandela wrote.

Mandela Harbour small “The Harbour” is a sketch of the place where new prisoners would first set foot on the island. (Click to enlarge)

Making the lithograph series

In the early 2000s Mandela created over 20 sketches of the island. The works were completed in a series of colour separations, first black crayon outline, then strong blocks of colour.

He completed no single original piece, only a series of separations that, when overlaid, created the final picture. From these the lithographs were printed under the supervision of Professor Steven Inggs at the printmaking department of the University of Cape Town. Each print was then individually signed by Mandela.

Mandela Cell small “The Cell” is a look through the barred door into Mandela’s prison cell, with his few meagre possessions emphasised in colour. These included letters and photographs from family and friends – pieces of paper with huge emotional value to prisoners. (Click to enlarge)

“In these sketches … 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.”

Mandela Lighthouse small “The Lighthouse” shows the beacon warning ships off the dangerous shores of the island, which has a long history of shipwrecks.

Mandela’s artist’s motivation

This is the full text of Nelson Mandela’s handwritten motivation for the My Robben Island lithograph series.

Mandela manifesto

Today when I look at Robben Island I see it as a celebration of the struggle and a symbol of the finest qualities of the human spirit, rather than as a monument to the brutal tyranny and oppression of apartheid.

Robben Island is a place where courage endured in the face of endless hardship, a place where people kept on believing when it seemed their dreams were hopeless and a place where wisdom and determination overcame fear and human frailty.

It is true that Robben Island was once a place of darkness, but out of that darkness has come a wonderful brightness, a light so powerful that it could not be hidden behind prison walls, held back by prison bars or hemmed in by the surrounding sea.

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.

Mandela signing the lithographs

The nearly hour-long video below shows part of a morning lithograph-signing session with Mandela at his home in Johannesburg in December 2002, filmed by staff from Belgravia Gallery in London. During the session Mandela signed over 400 lithographs and talked at length about his experiences and insights.