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Hard cell: Turning Madiba’s legacy into living museums


Hard cell: Turning Madiba’s legacy into living museums

A new series of Mandela-inspired artworks by Erhardt Thiel aims to populate the world

Andrea Nagel

Artist and photographer Erhardt Thiel has an unusual ambition: to create the biggest museum on Earth. He plans to do this by making thousands of small sculptures called iMadiba benches that will be positioned in prominent places all over the world. Taken together, they will create one very large museum.
The first iMadiba sculpture (according to Thiel the world’s smallest museum) is next to the Stellenbosch University Museum on the Wilgenhof side. “My many little museums will one day form a very big one,” says the artist.
The concrete bench, which is made according to the exact measurements of Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, is “a listener’s corner rather than a speaker’s corner”, says Thiel. “And when it is finished I hope that it will move South Africa from a free country to a free and fair one.”Thiel says he was inspired by the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in 2015 during which 12 people were killed. The artist wanted to produce a work in solidarity with the victims of inhumane behaviour. He decided on Mandela as the defining figure of humanity who rose above his experiences to endorse freedom and fairness for all people.
Two more sculptures exist in Stellenbosch and one of them went up in flames at Africa Burn when it was set alight in Mandela’s honour. Two are up at Mthatha and Qunu in the Eastern Cape. Thiel aims to erect 100 across South Africa in this year of Mandela’s centenary. The first overseas incarnation of the statue was erected last month at Michigan State University in the US.
Joining the bronze statue of Mandela overlooking Nelson Mandela Square, Thiel has erected his iMadiba bench. It was unveiled last week during a gathering at which Buskaid, a charitable trust helping young disadvantaged musicians, played and a carnival of dancers and performers on stilts accompanied a huge puppet of Mandela dancing.Nelson Mandela Square also commissioned a 100 Logo installation, in the spirit of the “Love” installation in New York City, complete with mirrors to symbolise the idea of reflection. Using the official centenary logo from the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the installation aims to draw crowds to this Instagrammable installation to be shared across social media platforms.
The installation will live in Nelson Mandela Square next to Madiba’s statue. In addition an initiative, “Writing on the Wall”, is now positioned on the square, encouraging people to write and share their messages of hope in continuation of Madiba’s legacy. At the end of this campaign, these messages will be turned into stationery bags and donated to underprivileged schools in need.

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