Powerful work by Nelson Mandela at African Art Sale in New York

A powerful sketch by Nelson Mandela, The Cell Door, Robben Island, will be offered at Bonhams Modern and Contemporary African Art sale, in New York on 2 May, with an estimate of $60,000-90,000. The wax pastel crayon work, which Mandela created in 2002, was one of the few that the statesman kept for his personal collection. It has been inherited by his daughter, Dr. Pumla Makaziwe Mandela.

After his official retirement in 1999, the former President of South Africa turned to art as a therapeutic activity that helped him express and reflect on his tumultuous life. In 2002, he created 22 sketches about his 27 year-long incarceration, focusing on images he found symbolically and emotionally powerful. Ten of these original drawings were then reproduced as editions of lithographs for the series My Robben Island (2002) and Reflections of Robben Island (2003). However, these sets did not include The Cell Door, which was regarded as a deeply personal image and one that he wanted to keep for himself.

Mandela's comments about these works were typically inspirational. As he said, "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 by prison bars or hemmed in by the surrounding sea."

Bonhams Director of Modern and Contemporary African Art, Giles Peppiatt, said, "The personal history and cultural gravitas that Mandela captured in this work is of great significance. Centred around the symbolic key in the lock, showing hope where previously there might have been none, the work demonstrates his indomitable spirit with characteristic honesty and clarity. This is the first time that a work by Nelson Mandela has come to market in the US, and we expect that it will resonate strongly."

Dr Pumla Makaziwe Mandela added, "The Cell Door, Robben Island was very special to my father. For him, painting was a way of relaxing, but also of making sense of the past. This work held a particular significance for him as it was a constant reminder that he could not forget what seemed unforgettable, and that he should not take freedom for granted."

Mandela spent 18 of his 27 incarcerated years on Robben Island, and his Cell No.5, as illustrated in this work, has become a site of pilgrimage for many, including world leaders such as American Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (in 1998 and 2013 respectively).


Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest and most renowned auctioneers, offering fine art and antiques, motor cars and jewellery. The main salerooms are in London, New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong, with auctions also held in Knightsbridge, Edinburgh, Paris, San Francisco and Sydney. With a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 22 countries, Bonhams offers advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full list of forthcoming auctions, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments, please visit bonhams.com.


Related auctions