The artist behind bars: Nelson Mandela's art


We explore some of Nelson Mandela's most intimate artworks, which he produced during his incarceration on Robben Island during the Apartheid. 


16th July 2020

The Twelve Apostles Hotel

Most visitors to South Africa are aware of Nelson Mandela’s incarceration on Robben Island during the Apartheid, but few know about the incredible paintings he produced there. Here, we explore some of his most intimate artworks, which offer an eye-opening insight into his 18-year imprisonment. On your next stay at The Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa, make time to visit Robben Island.  

The Window

One of Mandela’s most iconic artworks is The Window. Symbolic of the beauty of freedom, the drawing shows the silhouette of Cape Town’s Table Mountain looming on the horizon – so close and yet so far out of reach behind the iron bars of a cell window.

Nelson Mandela Art

The Cell

The Cell highlights the strict rules of the South African prison system. Offering a glimpse into Mandela’s confinement, this sketch depicts his tiny cell. Drawing the eye in is the small pile of possessions that he was permitted to own.

The Ward

In Mandela’s prison, the infirmary was an important lifeline to the outside world. As political and criminal prisoners were largely kept apart, the hospital was the only place where they could communicate. The Ward illustrates this space, which Mandela used to hear the latest news on his family and the Apartheid regime.

Nelson Mandela Art

The Lighthouse

A beacon of light on one hand and a symbol of oppression on another, this drawing of a lighthouse hints at Mandela’s loneliness in solitary confinement. The structure stands alone in an expanse of blue sky, warning off approaching ships with its bright light and guiding them away from the island and its prisoners.

Mandela’s Walk

During Mandela’s incarceration, he carried out hard labour at the local quarry mine. Rather than being a challenge, he enjoyed the experience of getting out into the fresh air, where he could talk with fellow prisoners on the long walk to the site beyond the prison walls. This artwork portrays his view on way back to the prison – the guard tower a grim reminder of his lack of freedom.

Nelson Mandela Art

The Tennis Court

While in the prison, the only exercise Mandela received was a 30-minute walk around the courtyard each day. This was until the prisoners managed to persuade guards to allow them to convert the space into a tennis court. Here, games become a highlight of Mandela’s days as he could exercise his brain and his mind simultaneously. He later said, 'It was a strange sensation enjoying such civilised hobbies in such an uncivilised place. It caused me to reflect on the strange and perverse nature of apartheid, where they wrongly thought that one peoples’ freedom could only be enjoyed at the expense and oppression of another.'

If you’re inspired by Nelson Mandela’s paintings, the Belgravia Gallery in London, where limited edition signed lithographs of the artworks featured above are available to buy. Works are fully authenticated and signed.

When visiting Cape Town, take a boat trip to Robben Island to explore the prison before returning to The Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa

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