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The Story Behind the Portrait of Nelson Mandela

"Salt of the Earth": A Journey from Conscription to Creation

Creating my artwork "Salt of the Earth," a portrait of Nelson Mandela, is a story that intertwines with my own personal journey and the remarkable life of Mandela himself. This story takes us back to a pivotal time in my life, during my conscription in the South African Defence Force.

Drafted into the Navy, I served as a photographer for the special forces unit. During that period, the image of Nelson Mandela that was painted for us was starkly different from the man I would later come to admire. The narrative we were fed was one of a distant, almost mythic figure, very different from the man who walked out of prison with a profound sense of humility and a genuine spirit of reconciliation.

Witnessing Mandela's inauguration as state president on 10 May 1994 was a transformative moment. I felt an overwhelming urge to create an artwork in his honour and have it delivered to the Union Buildings as a gift. This act was more about appeasing my conscience than anything else. I didn't care if the artwork reached him; it was a gesture for my peace of mind. The artwork I created and delivered was a wildlife piece called "Image of Africa."

After delivering the artwork, I thought nothing more of it. To my surprise, a couple of weeks later, I received a call from Nelson Mandela's personal assistant. She informed me that President Mandela had received my artwork, was delighted with it, and intended to display it in his office at the Union Buildings. I was utterly gobsmacked that he would even find the time to acknowledge my gift.

Walter Dhladhla/AFP/Getty Images

The story doesn't end there. About a year later, I again received a call from his office. This time, his assistant said that President Mandela wanted to know if the artwork was a personal gift to him or to the state. I replied that it was a gift to him personally. She expressed delight and explained that President Mandela wished to take the artwork to his home in Houghton, which he could not do if it was a gift to the state. This moment highlighted Mandela's true honesty and dignity, shining through my seemingly insignificant gesture.

Years passed, and I longed to create a portrait of Mandela. On many occasions, I considered asking him for a sitting so I could take his portrait to work from, but I always felt it might be an imposition, so I refrained. When he passed away on 5 December 2013, I regretted my procrastination and became more determined than ever to create an artwork in his memory.

I recalled a public photograph of President Mandela laughing while standing next to Graça Machel. Using a newspaper clipping as a reference, I sketched his portrait. I then used charcoal to amplify the lines and employed a technique I call a black powder transfer to transfer the portrait onto art paper. The portrait still felt flat, predictable if you like; I knew something was missing.

I remembered a saying my father often used: when he spoke about someone he respected, he said they were the "salt of the earth," a phrase famously used by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. That was it. I knew exactly what to do. I used dishwashing salt, as it photographs better than regular salt, and overlaid it onto the transfer. Using a dry brush, I manipulated the salt into thicker and thinner areas to create highlights and shadows. With a light table for backlighting and a top light for direction, I photographed the salt portrait.

To make the portrait more personal, I included pertinent lines from Mandela's famous speech at the Rivonia Trial where he was tried for treason:

“The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices - submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom.” “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” - 20 April 1964

I was so excited with the final result that I initially included his portrait in my limited edition signature collection. However, a voice of reason reminded me that Mandela never limited himself, so I decided not to limit the portrait either.

I created this portrait on 7 August 2014, and since then, it has been very popular. I have also donated many of these prints for auction to help raise funds for children with special needs. Creating art can be an instant process, but with this portrait, it was a journey moulded by history, perceptions, and events.

A portrait created in honour of Nelson Mandela

In this small way, I see my work continuing Mandela's legacy. As he once said, "What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.

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