The contrast between the tiny austere cell on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in jail, and the infinite diversity of the digital world could not be greater.
But the two will come together next month when the first non-fungible tokens (NFTs) of artwork by the former South African president and anti-apartheid hero are sold against the backdrop of a booming global digital art market.
My Robben Island consists of five vivid watercolours painted by Mandela after he stood down as president in 1999, plus The Motivation, a handwritten text that explains his visualisation of the harsh island prison. All six works bear his signature.
In The Motivation, Mandela writes: “It is true that Robben Island was once a place of darkness, but out of that darkness has come a wonderful brightness, a light so powerful that it could not be hidden behind prison walls, held back behind prison bars or hemmed in by the surrounding sea … The most fantastic dreams can be achieved if we are prepared to endure life’s challenges.”
Makaziwe Mandela, the former president’s daughter, said her father’s watercolours represented “the triumph of the human spirit”.
She said: “When my dad was on the island, he was surrounded by grey. Remember, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. He never thought he would walk out of prison. But the paintings say we should never despair.”
Offering the artworks as NFTs was a way of reaching new audiences, she added. “My dad was all about creating an accessible society. This is a way of democratising his art.”
Giles Peppiatt, the director of modern and contemporary African art at Bonhams, which is selling the NFTs, said digital art reached “new audiences that probably don’t go to art galleries and museums”. “These are people who live a lot of their life through their phones, through the…