Sarah Britten Art

Paintings in lipstick

May your spirit soar like birds


This is a sketch for a larger work. On Sunday night I read on Twitter that the Presidency announced that Nelson Mandela’s condition is “critical”. So, collectively, we braced ourselves for something we have dreaded for years. Travelling back in the dark in a taxi from OR Tambo International, I thought of what I’d like to say about Madiba, a man I met, briefly, twice.

I decided that it would be best if I painted how I feel, rather than writing about it. Words can’t capture a feeling quite as well as an image. I am also afraid that no matter what I say, it will be cliched, and we don’t need more cliche. Madiba kitsch has clogged our collective consciousness since the mid 1990s. It cloaks the interesting, real, flawed person behind a suffocating fog of adulation.

I painted this on Monday morning – incidentally, the anniversary of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the zenith of the Rainbow Nation myth. (You can read my PhD thesis on the role of advertising in the post-apartheid South African national narrative here.)

I decided I didn’t want to paint something sad about death. Rather, I wanted to focus on what Nelson Mandela achieved in life.  Madiba changed the world, and it’s up to us to keep his legacy alive, to hold the powerful to account. So I’ve portrayed him in an echo of a painting I did for Lawyers Against Abuse last year. His arms are held aloft – a gesture I took from this reference – and his stance is echoed by the secretary bird of our national coat of arms. It evokes a phoenix, but also refers to the Constitution. The flames from which the bird rises resolve into other birds. “May your spirit soar like birds”, I’ve written. “May you smile upon us from the stars”. At Madiba’s feet are the words “May the fire of your passion for justice burn forever” and also “May your laughter never be stilled”. Madiba had a great sense of humour, something I loved about him.

Above the head of the phoenix read the words “May your legacy live on.”

I hope it does.



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