July is Mandela Month – a time when South Africa and the world alike celebrate the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. For many, the former President is synonymous with humble fortitude, with his colourful Madiba shirts, his inspirational and powerful speeches delivered in his distinctive voice, and his unshakeable compassion.
This year, people are looking beyond public perceptions, rethinking and reassessing the man we call the Father of the Nation, even as they plan their 67 Minutes for Mandela on July 18.
While many of us are only rethinking Mandela now, renowned local portrait artist Cyril Coetzee was already exploring these ideas during Mandela’s Presidency. Coetzee hopes to shed some light on the question on everyone’s lips through the first-ever public reveal of the private portrait of Mandela.
Coetzee painted multiple portraits of Mandela, most notably his official Presidential portrait – the one which was used on a postage stamp.
He has recently revealed that he painted a companion portrait to the Presidential portrait, which will now be shown to the public for the first time, courtesy of the current owner, who wishes to remain private.
Privately painted and privately commissioned, this portrait was Coetzee’s sacred homage to the Mandela he knew and interacted with – a deeply personal and intimate depiction of the Mandela the public did not see. It was his attempt to capture Mandela’s sensitivity over and above his strength.
“There was always more than one portrait to be painted of Mandela because there were so many facets to who he was. The reveal of this portrait comes at a time when many are reassessing their perception of him, and I want to show that his personal side was not just an aura created by the media. It was who he really was – a man who transcended his position of power to be truly compassionate and kind to everyone,” says Coetzee.
Indeed, this portrait does show Mandela in a more vulnerable light. It is deeply introspective, showing an introverted side to the charismatic, bold leader. It is a rare encapsulation of Mandela looking within.
His colourful shirt remains and he sits in his wicker chair, almost throne-like. The painting is large in size and hyper-realistic to convey Madiba’s commanding presence. It is in the nuances where his sensitivity and inner contemplation are shown.
Mandela’s legs are crossed – a shift in body language that creates a subconscious indication that he is no longer fully engaged with the viewer. His head is turned away, his gaze fixed on something we cannot see, his thoughts in a place we cannot go.
It gives the overwhelming feeling of a person who has retreated within themselves, reflecting on memories, moments, and people only they have access to.
The effect is a humbling reminder of the vulnerability and humanity behind the legacy of Mandela. It is an intimate and precious glimpse into Mandela from the perspective of an artist who got to experience his compassion and humility first-hand.
As we enter Mandela Month, this refreshing and insightful portrait presents the opportunity for a more meaningful celebration of this exceptional man.
Picture: Cyril Coetzee