Stanford scholar questions whether traditional statues are an appropriate way to commemorate Mandela

In a study of recently erected Nelson Mandela memorials, Stanford Professor Grant Parker argues that traditional larger-than-life statues are ineffective acts of remembrance.

In the year since Nelson Mandela's death on Dec. 5, 2013, the impetus to commemorate the South African leader has increased around the globe, with memorials already completed in South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States, Peru, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

DanieB52/Creative CommonsStatue of Nelson Mandela in Pretoria, South Africa

This statue of former South African President Nelson Mandela towers over the Union Buildings, the seat of government in the capital city of Pretoria.

However, Grant Parker, co-director of African Studies and associate professor of classics at Stanford, argues that traditional representations used to honor leaders like Mandela are framed by an aesthetic of the gigantic, which does not necessarily do justice to those being commemorated.

Parker first presented his study of Mandela memorials at a Stanford Humanities Center BIOS workshop in October. Next, he plans to interview artists who have produced or are working on Mandela memorials to gain a greater understanding of their goals and influences.

As Parker put it, "We simply cannot assume that the best way to remember someone today is to put up a statue." And yet, around the globe, statues have been the primary mode of public remembrance for national figures like Mandela.

"The ancient Greeks loved this form," Parker said. "They used marble and bronze to represent the human body." It's a form that has survived for millennia. Recent examples include the marble Margaret Thatcher in London and the bronze memorial of Franklin Roosevelt in Washington, D.C.

Similarly, Parker said, most Mandela statues have been cast in bronze, continuing an ancient tradition. However, "We cannot assume that such statues engage viewers in today's visually saturated world. Most lack an interactive element." Further, Parker noted,  "It is hard to imagine that Mandela himself would have countenanced such a grandiose gesture in his own honor."

The Mandela statues in South Africa, with their enormous scale, invite comparison with statues of African leaders elsewhere on the continent, many of which were produced by a North Korean company called Mansudae Overseas Development Group.

Mansudae's statues – one of the dictatorship's only exports – work within the constraints of the classical tradition: broad-chested, triumphalist men in bronze. But Parker pointed out that these statues suggest that significance comes from size alone.

To Parker, one of the most problematic aspects of traditional statues of political leaders is their scale: "There's a power relationship communicated between the viewer and a larger-than-life statue, but, in a way, that's all."

The notion that all viewers need to do when viewing these statues is look up in awe contradicts Mandela's inclusive leadership style and sympathy for the oppressed, according to Parker, the Susan Ford Dorsey Co-Director of African Studies at Stanford.

Artistic and historical challenges

Parker cited a nine-meter–tall statue of Mandela that was erected at the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 2013 as a memorial that accentuates size above all else.

This statue is presumably meant to pay tribute to Mandela's legacies of anti-apartheid activism, his long and wrongful imprisonment and his service as the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

Yet in this statue Parker said he sees the self-contradictory nature of many contemporary memorialization projects.

The statue replaced a smaller one of J.B.M. Hertzog – a South African prime minister remembered for his segregationist policies – that had stood on the same spot. In this, Parker said, "We can see Mandela's ideas supplanting Hertzog's," which suggests a narrative of South Africa's progression toward inclusiveness.

However, Parker noted that some critics have understood the statue as a political move by the current leadership – particularly South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma – to connect itself with Mandela's moral authority. Such political posturing raises the question of whether the statue is intended more for the public or the country's current leaders.

The statue at the Union Buildings shows Mandela with his arms outstretched, but other gestures are visible elsewhere. In those at the former Victor Verster Prison, from which he was released in 1990, Mandela holds his right fist overhead, in accordance with the African National Congress salute.

As the Pretoria statue illustrates, there are numerous artistic and historical challenges associated with memorializing leadership. Because of their complex politics, Parker said, "We have to look at the unanswered questions surrounding each statue: Who's putting up the funding? Where is it located? When was it unveiled? By whom? What gesture is chosen and why?"

Similarly, as Parker pointed out, many have questioned the motives behind the recent installation of a pair of giant Ray-Bans on Cape Town's Sea Point promenade, which ostensibly commemorate Mandela's Robben Island sojourn. Robben Island is visible from the promenade and Mandela wears dark glasses in one of the few photographs of his time there. In the absence of any public consultation, this artwork has been described as "corporate vandalism" and has met scorn and indignation.

Thought-provoking alternatives

The statue that piqued Parker's interest in studying representations of Mandela provides an alternative to these problematic classical models. Marco Cianfanelli, a South African visual artist, unveiled a monument to Mandela in 2012 located at the site of Mandela's 1962 arrest that led to his 27-year prison sentence.

In Parker's estimation, Cianfanelli's monument suggests a dynamic relationship between viewer and object. The monument shows Mandela's head as it appears in a famous photograph by Jürgen Schadeberg on Mandela's first return to his jail cell since becoming a free man. However, the viewer has to physically reorient himself or herself in the environment in order to in order to see the image of Mandela. The sculpture is constructed of 50 steel columns (one for each year since the arrest) arranged so that the image of Mandela's head appears only when viewed from a certain perspective; the image fractures and disappears when the viewer does not look at it head-on.

Parker argued that, by engaging the viewer's body in order to really "see" the piece, Cianfanelli collapses the distance between the past and present in a way that the traditional statues described above do not.

Cianfanelli's challenge to the viewer is kinesthetic: "Your vision of the completed thing," Parker explained, "becomes contingent on movement. The viewer is put to work."

While the image of Mandela used as the model for the statue represented him as an older man in the mid-1990s, the piece was installed on the spot where he was captured in the early 1960s, a historical juxtaposition that complicates the persistence of place across time. Lastly, unlike other statues, which generally are placed in highly trafficked urban environments, Cianfanelli's work is integrated into the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal, thus opening a dialogue between the natural and the man-made, in both the literal and sociopolitical senses.

Parker argued that monuments like Cianfanelli's – thought-provoking, historically and geographically situated, ideologically aligned with the person they represent – provide a more effective model of public remembrance.

Parker argued, "It would be much preferable to have memorial objects that pose questions of the viewer rather than dictating to them what they need to think. Classical statuary is part of a long tradition, but today it may be an especially inept way of memorializing Mandela."  

Erik Fredner is a doctoral candidate in English at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Stanford Humanities Center website.

Corrie Goldman, Humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,