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
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, madibaonthemountain.com, 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.