“Live life as though nobody is watching, and express yourself as though everyone is listening.” Nelson Mandela’s enduring symbolism, by AHA alum Helena Roy

That Nelson Mandela’s influence is so pervasive is evident not just in the way he changed South Africa. Beyond that isolated period of history, it spreads from Hollywood, through galleries and music, to the streets of Johannesburg. From Clint Eastwood’s soaring film ‘Invictus’ to the eminence Mandela gave Henley’s poem by reciting its mantra of self-mastery to fellow prisoners on Robben Island, the strength of his values have gained extensive prominence in the creative arts.

His death is quite obviously a painful loss. The world has lost a statesman valued internationally for his humility and inescapable relevance to justice and freedom, and South Africa has lost its most beloved son. But the blow of his absence is softened by the fact that he was already an icon. The morals he represented transformed him into a symbol of kindness, modesty, forgiveness and reconciliation. The views he propagated have an unbeatable international following that will inevitably continue. Refusing to be classed by any label thrown upon him – be it as a criminal, judged by race or nationality – he became a universal icon in every sense of the phrase.

Murals and street art of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Soweto and Cape Town in South Africa

Street art blends Mandela into the very construction and bustling, heaving life of South Africa; it shows the history of the country not through architecture, but through urban mural. His image spreads from the streets of South Africa to squares on London; outside Parliament he serves as a constant reminder to the inevitability of defeat unjust government must face.

The statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square, London

At a time when the ANC and Mandela were taboo in South African media, songs inspired by South African music spread worldwide. ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ remains the epitome of exploitation of popular music for powerful political purposes. The very act of singing when mere mention of his name was banned, was itself a peaceful, delighted expression of opposition to persecution and solidarity with divided South Africans.

The album cover for 'Free Nelson Mandela' (1984) by The Special AKA

Photographs of him capture the reality of his fight and act as proof of his message. In the National Portrait Gallery, photographs of a young man reasoning and challenging can be found from 1962; of an elderly statesman ever-conscious and proactive from 1997.

Mandela by Michael Peto (1962) and Jillian Edelstein (1997), in the National Portrait Gallery, London

Mandela has been, and remains, an intense creative symbol because the life he lived was so vibrant, poignant and real. Almost uniquely, the fact that this symbolism is backed up by reality strengthens the message in a way no myth or legend could, and thus ensures its enduring popularity among the creative. Mandela symbolised freedom and equality – but proved their worth by living his life for them, rather than asserting their value by analogy.

With thanks to the National Portrait Gallery, Wikipedia and ADN for pictures.

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