As an anti-Apartheid revolutionary and political prisoner who rose to become president of South Africa and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize before his death in 2013, Nelson Mandela cut a formidable figure in world history.
Lesser known is Mandela’s body of work as an artist and collaborator on sketches and drawings credited to him and now on exhibit at the Ansin Family Gallery at the Miramar Cultural Center — works whose authenticity has been challenged by a Florida lithographer and blogger.
The collection of framed lithographs, on exhibit through February, reflect on Mandela’s time imprisoned on Robben Island. They’re displayed with original artworks by South Florida artists inspired by Mandela’s messages of perserverance in the face of adversity and the power of hope.
“What was really striking to me,” said Jaye Abbate, president of ArtServe, a Fort Lauderdale nonprofit that promotes local artists and curated the exhibit, “was how powerful Nelson Mandela’s message is a year after his death and so many years after Apartheid.”
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But a Fernandina Beach artist says what strikes him most about the works is that he does not believe Mandela created them, and that the works themselves are not genuine lithographs; rather, they’re rather reproductions.
“These are not lithographs, and they’re not even drawings that he did,” said Gary Arsenau, a lithographer who has written exhaustive blog posts on the subject. “It’s all a scheme … to cash in on his fame.”
Arsenau acknowledges that Mandela very likely had a hand in the creation of the works, but he alleges that the drawings and sketches were created by Mandela’s one-time art teacher, a Cape Town artist named Varenka Paschke, and that Mandela then traced over them.
He also alleges that Mandela did not sign the thousands of prints created for sale, though he acknowledges that Mandela likely signed “several dozen or hundreds” given that there are photographs of Mandela doing so.
In an email to Miramar city officials, representatives of ArtServe and The Herald, Arsenau also cites media accounts relating similar accusations. He notes that Mandela sued his attorney and publisher for making unauthorized reproductions of his signature for use on the lithographs and failing to donate the proceeds from sale of those works to charity as had been agreed.
Makaziwe Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s daughter and founder of House of Mandela Art International, a Cape Town firm that owns the artworks, refutes the accusation that the drawings and sketches are not genuine.
“The works on exhibit are prints of artworks created by Mr. Mandela between 2001 and 2003,” she said in a written statement responding to Arsenau’s claims.
She noted that Mandela’s signatures on the works have been certified by an expert in signature authentication, and that they are on loan to the Miramar Cultural Center and not for sale.
Craig Mark, managing director of House of Mandela Art International, an enterprise founded by Makaziwe Mandela, said the lawsuit against Nelson Mandela’s one-time attorney and publisher only prevented those individuals or companies they were involved in from selling or trading the works.
Mark noted that a London gallery has sold numerous prints of the works, and that no one has challenged their authenticity.
For Abbate, of ArtServe, the debate over the works misses the larger point she wanted to make through the exhibit, particularly its impact on local artists.
“The pieces are really just meant to be symbolic of a message,” she said, “and the message is the work of local artists that are inspired by it, saying ‘Nelson Mandela is an iconic figure. His work lives on.’ ”