Belgium Presents Gift to United Nations

Beekman United Nations

The Mandela Portrait | Beekman United Nations

An Icon for the 21st Century

The portrait that Jan Beekman painted of Nelson Mandela occupies a unique position in his work. Beekman had been praised as an excellent portrait painter when young, but he did not paint portraits in his long professional career. Although the outside world and more particularly the natural world remained his major source of inspiration, figurative elements did only occur occasionally in his paintings. The portrait of Mandela is an exception. It shows nothing but the immediately recognizable face of the man who would later become President of South Africa. The urge to create the Mandela portrait began in Chicago where Beekman, who had moved to United States several years earlier, had not only made friends in the black community, but had also become emotionally involved in the black South African people’s struggle for liberation. Having learned from the TV news media, that Mandela was to be set free from Robin’s Island at 4.00AM US time, and that the event would be televised live, Beekman got up in the middle of the night to watch. “The very moment when Mandela literally stepped out from the dark into the light – in a flash - was so overpowering that the memory of it can still bring me to tears, “ says Beekman. “It caused an outburst of emotion that has also become the subject of the painting.”  Because the painting represented such a personal moment, Beekman put it aside in his studio, never including it in an exhibition. Thus it remained relatively unknown, except to those visitors who came to his studio, and who were, without exception, deeply moved by it, regarding it as the icon of the century. Beekman himself has said that, if he were to be remembered for one single work, it should be this portrait. “One could see it as a portrait of hope, an anti-racist statement, and a tribute to our origins, the continent where we all come from, Africa.”  But the strongest point about the painting is that, independent of whether or not the viewer would recognise Mandela, it remains a masterpiece, revealing a face that holds all the glory and pain of humanity.

Max Borka

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