After his retirement Mandela adopted his now famous ‘personality’ shirts that signified a more approachable, less political figure.
Geoff Blackwell and Ruth Hobday with Nelson Mandela, Johannesburg 2006.Nelson Mandela Foundation/PQ Blackwell
Mandela wearing one of his famous ‘personality’ shirts with longtime friend and comrade Ahmed Kathrada.Nelson Mandela Foundation/Debbie Yazbek
It is these ‘Mandela the Elder Statesman’ shirts that most of us now remember him by. It was what he was wearing the day I first met him. I was shaking with nerves, of course, but the combination of colorful shirt, immense charm, and his delightful, somewhat mischievous sense of humor put me completely at my ease. It’s always daunting to meet your heroes but it’s an intensely gratifying experience when you discover they are everything you’d hoped they’d be and much, much more.
It was ‘Mandela the Elder Statesman’ I met that day. An old man stubbornly refusing to bend to the tyranny of his aging knees but also a man who had always been keenly aware of his image and its various meanings. Advocate, Chief, Revolutionary, President, Unifier, Elder—all images carefully thought out and deployed as vital tools in the struggle against, and victory over, apartheid. I feel tremendously grateful to have had the subsequent privilege of working on a number of books based on his life and his writings over the last decade of his life until his passing last year.
Since that moment he has been transformed one final time, into ‘Mandela the Icon’.
July 18 has been designated Nelson Mandela Day to “inspire individuals to take action to help change the world for the better, and to empower communities everywhere.” The message behind the campaign is simple—that each individual has the ability and responsibility to impact positive change every day. Indeed, the image of Mandela walking free from prison in 1990, fist held triumphantly in the air, is the basis for the official Nelson Mandela Day logo — a powerful graphic derived from Mandela’s very last steps in his own personal ‘long walk to freedom’.
Mandela spent more than 67 years serving his community, his country and the world. This number is symbolic of how people can start to do the same—one small step at a time—and in so doing become part of a continuous, global movement for good. I invite you to use 67 minutes today, tomorrow, and the day after that, to create or share art that reminds us that we can all make a difference, however big or small, and make every day a ‘Mandela Day.’
Because, ultimately, it’s not only the creation of art, but the sharing of it that makes it so potent. Sharing and distributing your art empowers it as a vital and important tool for change and reminds us that as long as we have art, we have a voice.
“Good art is invariably universal and timeless.”
Nelson Mandela, from a letter to his daughter, Zindzi Mandela, written on Robben Island.