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John Meyer’s The Life and Times of Nelson Mandela


Like a clock, his life comes full circle in Meyer’s art

When we walked into the Circa Gallery this morning, the first painting that depicted Nelson Mandela’s life is one of him playing with two other children on grassland in what we imagine is the soil of the Eastern Cape. And like the hands of a clock, the curator’s hands placed the sixteen paintings in a circular motion from his earliest days playing to his last day walking. His portrayal of Mandela’s life is really the portrayal of the circle of life. Since Meyer’s painting stems from Realism, your eyes become the gateway to private conversations, meetings with peers and leaders of the National Party and intimate moments he had with himself in his tiny cell at Robben Island.

140 x 210 cm (55 x 83 inches)

There were times in this life that made us stop, take a few steps back and gaze until it felt as if we were looking at photographs and not paintings. Mandela holding what looks like an ashtray in his cell during nighttime, Mandela the President of the Republic laughing and playing with children as well as the last painting of Mandela walking in his old age on similar soil to the one his feet in his early days knew are times we took home to sit and to think about.

140 x 210 cm (55 x 83 inches)


The painting of Mandela sitting in his cell alone for us tells the story of loneliness and dislocation. The man who stood for all yet sat alone faces silent walls and coldness in the middle of an Island. There he had no access to home, except through letters mailed to his wife and daughters and a mind with thoughts that now exists in pages of his book. What we see here is a son whose mother died while he sat in that cell.  This is a painting of a father who could not be present in his home. What Meyer is showing us here is a father whose son died while he spent days breathing in that cold. What we see here is more than just a man who fought for liberation. How could we not be moved by this? How could we not step back in the gallery space and feel the pain and isolation that he did?

140 x 210 cm (55 x 83 inches)

Father of the Nation

Although he could only parent his own daughters through his letters sent home, to the nation he was a father. Children hurried to hug him and felt immense joy in his presence. We think that what he did for many children was offer them warmth from a father figure many were robbed of by Apartheid. His walks and speeches served as a reminder that a father is not a only a father by blood, but through his love and actions too.

140 x 210 cm (55 x 83 inches)

Walk to Freedom

It was this painting that entered our hearts and sat there for a while. When we looked at this and turned to look at the first painting, that is when we saw the complete circle of his life. Going home is always a journey of solitude. Yes, the painting portrays a man in his last days walking alone on what looks like the ground of his home. However, we saw a father and a son whose long walk to freedom had only just begun. For us, his freedom was not absolutely found in his position as President. It also came from within, from a place of peace and in his final rest.

140 x 210 cm (55 x 83 inches)

Where is Home?

We imagine that the woman he is sitting with at the table in this jazz club is a young Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Meyer has given us access into so much of Mandela’s life, but very little of those moments are of him at home with his daughters and his wife. We would have loved to take home with us a moment between himself and his wife.  Nonetheless, we are thankful for this documentation of a life that was given to free ours.

John Meyer’s solo exhibition is currently on show at Circa Gallery in Rosebank but you can also view the paintings here:

Tshedza Mashamba