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‘Mahatma Gandhi: Made in South Africa’  and Decoding the Colour of Nelson Mandela


An artists statement

By Amita Makan

Decoding the Colour of Nelson Mandela

For a Black South African woman of Indian origin, it is impossible to understand South Africa outside of its political and historical context. When Apartheid was formally instituted in 1948, South African identities were defined primarily in terms of race. South Africans were categorized as either Black or White. We were favored or discriminated against on the basis of our colour.

What then constitutes being a South African today? For me, the best part of being South African is about expressing our common humanity. Notions of femininity, masculinity, white, black, European, and African are derivatives of a common humanity. While these categories contribute and help to shape our identities and the notion of the Self, these categories can be manipulated to create divisions in our common humanity, as our South African past attests.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela represents the essence of a common and global humanity. A democratic South Africa and Mandela have become synonymous. It is no longer possible to celebrate being South African without recognizing and honoring Nelson Mandela and his role in delivering our freedom, democracy and common humanity. When Mandela was liberated, South Africa was liberated. Mandela unified South Africa. He remains a symbol of hope to heal xenophobia, racism and sexism around the world. Nelson Mandela’s ideals are a constant.

I was inspired to do a portrait of Nelson Mandela, entitled ‘Decoding the Colour of Nelson Mandela’ (canvas size 85cm x 85 cm), based on what he stands for in South Africa and globally. The oil painting, “an image of an image”, is an interpretation of a photograph of Nelson Mandela taken soon after his release from prison. The painting in black and white is symbolic, having connotations of our Apartheid history.

The process of painting with black and white paints, and mixing, manipulating, blending, diluting, rubbing and erasing those colours, creates a variety of tones of grey. In his book “Without Color”, based on the oeuvres of German artist Gerhard Richter, Reinhard Spieler observes, “…grey is nothing but a sum of all colours. If you mix all colours together you get grey”.  

I then wondered if we mix people, as I have done with paint, how will it culminate? Will the mixing together of people be an embodiment of our ‘sameness’ rather than our differences? Out of my process of working and reworking the colours black and white, Nelson Mandela emerges. The absence of colour became pertinent in my painting, diminishing the differences and distinctions that divide us.


‘Mahatma Gandhi: Made in South Africa’

Artist Statement by Amita Makan
The artwork entitled ‘Mahatma Gandhi: Made In South Africa’ is an interpretation of the iconic photograph of Mohandas Gandhi by Indian photographer, Mr V.N. Narayanan.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in Porbandar, Gujarat in India on the 2nd October 1869. In 1893, at the age of 24 he travelled to  South Africa to take up a commercial case as a young lawyer. In South Africa he underwent a metamorphosis  when he encountered British racism and segregation when he was thrown off a whites only carriage on a train.  Gandhi spent the next 21 years challenging racism in South Africa and in so doing honed his political ideology, ethics and leadership skills which he then employed in his leadership against British colonialism in India. It is said that ‘India gave South Africa a lawyer, and South Africa gave India a Mahatma’. ‘Maha Atma’ is Sanskrit for a ‘great soul’.

My monochromatic portrait of Gandhi is hand embroidered with cotton and viscose thread on cotton. The ‘canvas’ is hand spun Indian cotton called ‘khadi’ of which Gandhi himself used as a weapon against colonialism and encapsulates Gandhi’s philosophy and political vision of '‘Swadeshi'. Gandhi spun and wore khadi to encourage self–sufficiency in India and to boycott foreign made textiles, particularly from colonial Britain. Khadi is a symbol of India’s struggle against British colonialism.
The red embroidered Gujarati letters in the portrait are from a deconstructed version of Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite religious song called ‘Vaishnav jan to’. The song expresses the values by which Gandhi lived his life: empathy, truth, compassion, non-attachment, humility, respect for women and the rejection of the Indian caste system.
2013 marks the 100th year anniversary of Gandhi’s philosophy of ‘Satyagraha’ sanskrit for ‘truth force’, ‘insistence on truth', and non–violent resistance against oppression. Mahatma Gandhi mobilised and led his first successful Satyagraha protest in South Africa. Satyagraha became the principle weapon against British Colonial rule in India.
Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world, inspiring leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Aung San Suu Kyi.
 Artist:     Amita Makan    
Title:     Mahatma Gandhi: Made in South Africa
Medium:Hand embroidered with cotton and viscose thread on Indian khadi (hand spun) cotton
Dimensions: 82.2 x 81.7 x 3 cm. Framed in perspex. Both front and reverse of the portrait is exhibited.

Visit the artist at (search for Amita Makan)






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