17 Jul, 2009

Nelson Mandela’s forged artworks

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Five prints of Robben Island prison by Nelson Mandela go on sale in London’s Belgravia Gallery – but their creator claims the signatures are not his

The cell door opens on to a blue-grey wall and a small square-barred window. On the floor, the prisoner’s simple possessions – a jar, some clothes or towels, perhaps a razor – are neatly stacked in a little burst of yellow, red, purple, orange, blue.

Nelson Mandela’s memory of his cell on Robben Island in this lithographic print is very different from the way the cell is presented to visitors to the island itself, where grey felt blankets and a tin cup grimly decorate the preserved room. In Mandela’s drawing, the colours are vibrant, as if he wants to remember what made prison bearable, not what made it unbearable.

In 2002 Mandela attempted to record his feelings about Robben Island in this and four other limited edition, individually signed prints. But his art has now become entangled in controversy. This week, London’s Belgravia Gallery opens an exhibition of Mandela’s lithographs – against his wishes. He “strongly dissociates himself” from the event; his lawyer insists, “He did not sign those artworks.” The gallery claims its video of him signing artworks proves its sale authentic.

This is the latest twist in a painful story. Mandela created the images to raise money for his charities for homeless children and victims of Aids. He took lessons with an artist, Varenka Paschke, under whose guidance he made his own drawings, based on newly taken photographs of the prison island; his strong colours infuse the lithographs that a printmaker produced from his originals. But the experiment turned sour in 2005 when Mandela sued his lawyer, Ismael Ayob, for failing to account properly for sales of the lithographs. He even claimed some of “his” signatures were forged. Ayob stopped selling them and in 2007 paid Mandela 700,000 rand. Now the London sale has attracted Mandela’s ire.

Does he, perhaps, feel unhappy that he created the lithographs at all? They do not possess the eloquence of his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, or of the famous photograph of him talking to Walter Sisulu in the prison yard, taken secretly in 1966. Perhaps this is what happens when you try to sell a memory, even for the best of reasons.

In fact, Mandela’s most memorable work of art can been seen on Robben Island itself. At a reunion of inmates in 1995, he was the first to take a stone and place it on the ground as a memorial. Everyone else did the same and the result is the Reunion Cairn, a simple monument that endures silently under the Atlantic sky, while tortoises crawl past and penguins squawk. But some of the natural beauty of Robben Island comes through in Mandela’s lithographs, bright as they are with the colours of survival.

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