Cap­tur­ing the heads of ANC’s three gi­ants

Artist Naomi Jacobson did not only sculpt the great men’s outer shells, but also tried to show what was in­side, writes GE­ORGINA CROUTH

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

THEY were the three gi­ants of the ANC and she “did” all three of their busts in life – Nel­son Man­dela, Oliver Tambo and Wal­ter Sisulu. Naomi Jacobson’s busts were the first in the line of many like­nesses of Madiba in par­tic­u­lar – the out-of­pro­por­tion mon­stros­ity in Nel­son Man­dela Square in Sand­ton, the strik­ing work com­pris­ing char­coal steel col­umns in­stalled at How­ick in KwaZulu-Natal, and a 9m im­pos­ing bronze sculp­ture erected on Mon­day in the place of for­mer prime min­is­ter JB Hert­zog’s statue at the Union Build­ings.

At the more bizarre end of the scale, in July a Dutch ar­chi­tec­ture firm called WHIM an­nounced it had done mock-up de­signs for a 60m by 40m Mount Rush­more-style head of Madiba on Devil’s Peak in Cape Town and launched a web­site, madibaon­the­moun­, to lobby pub­lic sup­port for the project.

But Jacobson as­serts that she is the only sculp­tor who has not worked from photographs and had live sit­tings with the three greats, Madiba, Sisulu and Tambo.

She says that af­ter Man­dela’s re­lease from prison in 1990, a firm from Midrand called Citi­com con­tacted her about sculpt­ing the heads of the three lead­ers of the just-un­banned lib­er­a­tion move­ment.

The busts were des­tined to be dis­played to­gether on Robben Is­land, with copies of each to be do­nated to the trio’s schools.

“I couldn’t be­lieve what I was hear­ing. I was so ex­cited.”

But the three are not be­ing dis­played as in­tended. Man­dela’s is on dis­play at the Man­dela Gate­way to Robben Is­land at the V&A Water­front, while Sisulu and Tambo have been con­fined to the archives, ap­par­ently due to space con­straints.

“What an aw­ful snub to the other two great men. They were done to­gether, and should re­main so on dis­play.”

There was to be no great fan­fare at the time she did the work.

“Citi­com wanted to get th­ese heads done qui­etly. Now, to get sit­tings with th­ese three men – the world was go­ing mad, South Africa was go­ing mad, they had no time, they were hav­ing meet­ings all the time, and Madiba’s sec­re­tary, I think Thoko was her name, was so dif­fi­cult. She sim­ply wouldn’t give us an ap­point­ment. It took us al­most six months just to get an ap­point­ment to have a sit­ting with him, Oliver and Wal­ter. Even­tu­ally, we got it (in 1991),” Jacobson, now 88, says.

An em­i­nent sculp­tor, she was not given to be­ing star-struck.

She is self-taught and, in a ca­reer that be­gan in the 1950s, she has com­pleted more than 200 heads.

Some of her sub­jects were fa­mous – Lady Baden-Pow­ell (wife of scouts founder, Robert), King Sob­huza II of Swazi­land, and Man­go­suthu Buthelezi. Oth­ers were com­mon­ers, the un­seen – Khoisan, Himba wash­er­women.

Com­ing from a prom­i­nent fam­ily in Wind­hoek – her fa­ther, Is­rael Gold­blatt, was a highly re­garded ad­vo­cate in South West Africa; her sis­ter, Karen Mar­shall, was a judge; and her mother, Janet Co­hen, was the daugh­ter of the first rabbi in Wind­hoek – Jacobson’s world was art, mu­sic and dance.

“My fa­ther had a lot to do with the in­de­pen­dence of Namibia. I come from a home alive with con­ver­sa­tion. We met a lot of very in­ter­est­ing peo­ple – we all felt the same po­lit­i­cally.”

The ANC greats, though, were a coup for any artist.

“They were then sta­tioned at Shell House in town. Mr Man­dela was to be the first sit­ter.

“While we were wait­ing for Madiba to come out of a meet­ing, Oliver Tambo came around the cor­ner and said: ‘I know what you’re here for.’ I said: ‘No, you don’t know I’m go­ing to be do­ing you next.’

“Then I saw this man, who was very tall (at 1.84m), and I re­alised I wasn’t look­ing at a man, I was look­ing up to this in­cred­i­ble smile. He oozed some­thing – and it’s not like me to be taken in by any­thing like it.

“We then went into his of­fice, and he asked what this was all about, but he knew that I had been given per­mis­sion to do his head. Be­fore five min­utes were over, he and I were on a level of con­ver­sa­tion as if we had known each other all our lives.

“I have a tape of our con­ver­sa­tion – we laughed so much, it was glo­ri­ous. We got on ex­tremely well. In to­tal, we spent about six hours to­gether. I had to do the back of his head and I asked him if he could take a cat nap. He said: ‘Sure.’

“I said: ‘Close your eyes and I’ll do the back of your head.’ And he’d close his eyes for 10 min­utes and I would get a feel­ing of this still­ness, this tired­ness of a man who had been through hell. He just re­laxed all of a sud­den.

“We had our sit­tings – they were de­light­ful, fun and in­tel­li­gent – and I just couldn’t get over the fact that this man had come out of prison ac­tu­ally sane. Since then I learnt how they ac­tu­ally man­aged to be the way that they were.

“And then I met Wal­ter. Wal­ter was a gi­ant in his way. Wal­ter knew he didn’t have the charm of Man­dela – Nel­son was such a show­man. The me­dia had once de­scribed him as the Black Pim­per­nel.

“I had the most sit­tings with Wal­ter. But Oliver was very ill. I even had to go to his bed­room on one oc­ca­sion to do his head. What a lovely man. And his wife, Ade­laide, shared a lovely per­sonal mo­ment with me when he died. I went to see her and she shared a love let­ter he had writ­ten her shortly be­fore he died. It was the most beau­ti­ful love let­ter, which I shared, and we cried.

“So I got to know the three greats. I got to know them in­ti­mately. How lucky I was to be so close to what was hap­pen­ing at that par­tic­u­lar stage. It was the be­gin­ning of their free­dom.”

Jacobson has kept metic­u­lous records of the time, show­ing news­pa­per clip­pings re­lat­ing to the Trea­son Trial, a black-and-white pic­ture of a dis­tressed Man­dela the day he was im­pris­oned, photographs of her sub­jects, of the stages of the sculpt­ing process and her other work.

“(Sisulu) was warm. And he had the most in­cred­i­ble wife, Al­bertina.

“Win­nie is a dif­fer­ent story. I would never hold any­thing against her. If it hadn’t been for Win­nie, we wouldn’t have an ANC to­day in this coun­try. Win­nie did it on her own. She made some mis­takes, but you tell me who hasn’t made mis­takes in pol­i­tics?

“I never dis­liked Win­nie for the things she did – I thought per­haps they were wrong, but that’s the way she did it. I had great, great re­spect for her, be­cause look what she did. She was much younger than Man­dela was, and she gave her life to help him cre­ate a won­der­ful life for South Africa.

“My hus­band was a doc­tor and he treated her on one or two oc­ca­sions when she was in­car­cer­ated. He was a doc­tor to the de­tainees. In this home, we’ve had a rather in­ter­est­ing back­ground to so many events.”

There were many other great men, but th­ese were the lib­er­a­tion lead­ers.

“Ahmed Kathrada, who bid farewell to ‘my fa­ther (Sisulu) and my brother (Man­dela)’ at the fu­neral, should have been the fourth. He was much younger, but he un­der­stood them. And how many of us have ques­tioned our­selves for the lessons this man was try­ing to teach us? Madiba and the oth­ers had the time to ques­tion them­selves, whether they were be­ing true to them­selves.

“When I did the Bush­men, I learnt about them. I do more than just the art­work. The art­work em­braces. Be­cause it is por­trai­ture it em­braces the mind of the other per­son. Try­ing to re­pro­duce not what is out­side the per­son – you can take a pho­to­graph – but hope­fully I have man­aged to do that with what’s in­side.

“Madiba’s smile, when I did his head, at first was very sad. I had to scrap that head. I didn’t want to see the sad­ness and I didn’t want any­one else to see it ei­ther.”

With so many sto­ries to tell, Jacobson is writ­ing a book about her sub­jects.

“I’ve cho­sen 28 sub­jects, de­scrib­ing anec­dotes of each of them.

“I couldn’t be­lieve what was hap­pen­ing to me. How lucky I was. I’ve done such a lot. I’ve done 200 heads and so much more. I’ve done Madiba, I’ve done a lot of African lead­ers. Sam Nu­joma, Buthelezi, Phillip To­bias, Ray­mond Dart, Steve Biko, CJ Lan­gen­hoven – my brother’s god­fa­ther – Seretse Khama, Sob­huza. That was un­real.

“I did Sob­huza in the 1970s. I took a Peu­geot truck, went to all his re­treats, searched for him for five days. When I found him, I said: ‘You have been very elu­sive. It took me five days to find you.’ He said: ‘Find me for what? I hadn’t been told any­thing about this.’ And he and I lay on the lawn – the ar­ti­cle at the time was named the ‘King and I’ – we had drinks and talked… for hours.

“My friend­ship with a lot of th­ese peo­ple wasn’t only about do­ing their heads. It was per­sonal, a lot of them re­mained my friends, and that is why I found my work to be so ex­cit­ing. It wasn’t just about the work.

“My life has been so much more than just be­ing a sculp­tor, and try­ing to get the like­ness of a man or a woman – it’s some­thing deeper.”


IN­NER MAN: Naomi Jacobson is pic­tured with a copy of her bust of Nel­son Man­dela at her home in Kil­larney, Joburg.

THE THREE GREATS: Oliver Tambo, Nel­son Man­dela and Wal­ter Sisulu.

TUNED IN: Jacobson at work on her bust of Nel­son Man­dela.

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