Our Aspirations: Mandela’s Lithographs

In the alcove beside high table hangs a series of six limited edition lithographs, My Robben Island, by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Nelson Mandela. For many around the world, Mandela stands as someone who fought tirelessly against injustice and who was committed to building a truly inclusive “rainbow nation”. These lithographs were gifted to St Chad’s in 2023 by alumnus Richard Monk.

Nelson Mandela is widely viewed as one of the world’s great leaders. He personified the struggle against the racist apartheid system in South Africa and without him, South Africa would almost certainly never have achieved such a peaceful transition to democracy. Mandela was South Africa’s first black President, elected in 1994 in the country’s first full and free elections. He, along with others, was prepared to give up his life for the freedom of his people. In the course of this struggle, Mandela spent 27 years imprisoned, 18 of these on Robben Island, off the coast near Cape Town. The images we see here were sketched and completed by Mandela in 2002 after he had retired as President; they offer a retrospective of his life on Robben Island.


The Harbour

This sketch depicts a view of Robben Island harbour where new prisoners would first set foot on the island.  Nelson Mandela decided to highlight the ocean and landing stage in colour, two elements which clearly have significant symbolism in his interpretation.  Prisoners would be stripped and searched on arrival and changed into prison clothes removing all signs of external personal identity. The landing stage would be their first contact with the prison island and the sea their last contact with freedom.

The Window

The Window depicts a view of Table Mountain through the bars of a prison cell on Robben Island. In fact, Table Mountain is not visible from the prison cell windows, and the view depicted in this piece idealised one that resembled freedom and beauty to Mandela during his incarceration. ‘The Window’ is one of the few sketches where colour is used throughout indicating the deep emotional value and meaning which is attached to it by Nelson Mandela. The symbolic value of colour as an emotional and value signifier is significant in African culture and it is powerfully used in this image, ‘The Window’.

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse offers a view of the lighthouse on Robben Island. ‘The Lighthouse’ is a warning beacon to ward off passing ships from the treacherous shores of the island, which has a long history of shipwrecks. To Nelson Mandela the lighthouse on Robben Island embodied a contradiction: it was both a beacon of home and a beacon of oppression. Nelson Mandela uses the expanse of the sky behind the lighthouse to emphasise the solitary nature of this structure silhouetted simply and quietly.

The Cell 

This sketch depicts the view into Nelson Mandela’s prison cell through the open cell door. The few possessions that prisoners were allowed have been emphasised in colour, as they are symbolic of a link with a reality outside the harsh prison regime.  Their meagre possessions typically included letters and photographs of family and friends – pieces of paper that acquired tremendous emotional value to prisoners.

The Church 

Although prisoners could never enter the church to practice their faith, it remained a powerful spiritual symbol to many, including Nelson Mandela.  ‘The Church’ is another of the sketches in the Robben Island Series where colour has been used throughout, again suggesting the powerful spiritual meaning the church had to Nelson Mandela and his fellow inmates.

Richard Monk CMG OBE QPM

In 2023, Richard Monk, an alumnus of St Chad’s, offered his reflections, available here, upon presentation of this series of lithographs by Nelson Mandela to St Chad’s College. The College is immensely grateful for this beautiful gift. As well as being a generous benefactor and kind friend to the College, Richard is a remarkable person with a distinguished career which has demonstrated courage, integrity and a passion for safeguarding the rights of the vulnerable. In 2009 Richard was awarded a Durham Doctor of Civil Law by the University.