Progressing step-by-step to the perfect Mandela portrait

2013-12-15 06:00

In 1990, celebrated South African portraitist Reshada Crouse received an extraordinary painting commission.

American broadcaster CBS contacted her just three weeks before Mandela’s release from prison.

She was assigned to paint “a kind of identikit” in oils, speculating on what Mandela would look like on his release in February 1990.

The obvious problem was that the last photo taken of Madiba was 26 years earlier.

Crouse had made a name for herself with her Famous People series that included the likes of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the late Dr Danie Craven, FW de Klerk, Rian Malan, Marianne Fassler, Anneline Kriel, Vladimir Tretchikoff, Helen Suzman – but she had never attempted Mandela.

But, sharing the story with City Press at her home in Yeoville, Johannesburg, she says she thought “why not?” and accepted the near-impossible job.

The first thing she did was to seek the help of Mandela’s friends and comrades who had visited him in prison and knew what he looked like at the time. She consulted the likes of Amina Cachalia, Ismail Ayob and George Bizos. They acted as her collaborators, guiding her throughout the process.

“I literally ran around trying to make sure the pictures were the best representation of Nelson Mandela ... I had to factor time and other changes into the portrait ... changing layers and cheeks and bone structure to arrive at the final picture.”

Crouse said that Mandela had his own way of wearing his prison uniform and was often told by her collaborators that he had not lost his sense of style.

He was arrested in 1962 as a “healthy and plump, strong man” but after years spent in prison under strenuous conditions “the collaborators told me he had become ‘very thin’, his hairstyle was ‘entirely different’ and his hair was turning grey.”

Working against the clock, she began by sketching eight identical copies of Mandela’s portrait. These she took to her collaborators, adding wrinkles in places, removing them, changing the flesh, greying the hair, and so forth.

She then began to paint.

“I thought that as his bone structure could not have changed, I would begin to construct the face of the older man on the ‘skeleton’, as it were, of the young Mandela.

“I kept one of the original eight paintings and proceeded with the second phase of the remaining seven, once again painting seven identical paintings of which one was kept, painting number two, and so forth, until I had five of the fourth painting – one of these was submitted to CBS as the image which my collaborators felt looked exactly like the man.”

It’s remarkable how accurate her portrait turned out to be.

It garnered huge amounts of attention – finally the world got to see the image of a man that had been banned for almost three decades.

A few years ago, the story of the portrait was retold in a display at the Apartheid Museum in Joburg. The exhibition went on to travel internationally.

Yet Crouse reveals that the Famous People series is no longer popular at home and she wishes South Africans were as fascinated by famous people as people are overseas.

“I guess it is not in our culture to idolise famous people this way ... I would have loved to paint current and recent heads of state and other important people.”

Asked what impact Madiba had on her, she offers a quote: “Mandela used to say, ‘No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.’ I will forever cherish these words.”

The portraitist would go on to meet the subject of her speculative painting twice at events.

At the second meeting her then 11-year-old son Gabriel was with her. Crouse recalls Mandela coming up to them and shaking hands with her son. As he shook his hand, Mandela said, “You will make a fine president of the country one day, my son.”

Gabriel is now a grown man who has just completed his studies in the US and will be in South Africa in time for Mandela’s funeral.

Crouse had submitted painting number four to CBS, but after Mandela’s release, ever the perfectionist, she continued with the series until she did portrait eight, an almost perfect likeness.

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