Poster Artist Robbie Conal's Nelson Mandela Memorials

Photo by Brian Lauzon

Four images of Nelson Mandela shimmy across the wall of a building on Centinela, the words "Walking Dancing Walking Dancing" emblazoned beneath them in a poetic public tribute to the great man. The neat but irregular line of imagery, a visual reminder of the playfully shuffling dance-step Mandela was known for in his homeland, is actually a remnant of the on-the-fly process of pasting these works on the wall. One of many such spontaneous installations that sprang up across Los Angeles in recent days, the Mandela portraits are the work of artist Robbie Conal in collaboration with the non-profit organization Art Aids Art. Conal and his wife and movie titles/graphic designer, Deborah Ross, pasted the posters around Los Angeles with the help of approximately 200 volunteers that came out to paper the town. Their nighttime foray began at Canter's Deli, as so many of Conal's projects have over the years, on December 6, the day after news of Mandela's death had quickly made its way around the world. Copies of the same posters will be sent to South Africa and distributed to locals by Art Aids Art.

On the afternoon that I met with Conal in his studio, Mandela's body was being taken to his ancestral home to be buried. "Mandela's combination of international statesmanship and practical -- even "back room" -- real politick is profound," Conal says, "It's a blueprint and an inspiration for all who aspire to fight the good fight for the better parts of human nature to prevail -- without bitterness -- in the down and dirty arena of world power politics. It brings tears to my eyes." Though the connection between Mandela's passing and the poster project is largely spontaneous, it has given the artist and local community an avenue to mourn, a public way to recognize and celebrate Mandela's amazing life and accomplishments.

Conal began work on the 30"x20" oil painting that was transformed into two posters (same image, one with the word 'Walking', the other, 'Dancing") about four months ago. He made the portrait at the invitation of Tom Harding and Dorothy Garcia, co-founders of Art Aids Art, an Altadena-based non-profit dedicated to promoting education and sustainable economic development through art. In addition to coordinating education projects about Africa locally, the organization runs a thriving community art center in Khayelitsha, South Africa. The poster collaboration was initially planned to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Mandela's election as president of South Africa, as well the venerated leader's 95th birthday.

Robbie Conal's studio
Robbie Conal's studio

The Mandela project is the latest but certainly not the first project of its kind for Conal. For the past three decades, the artist has been fusing areas the art world typically divides into categories -- studio and street; political and personal; individual and communal -- through his paintings-turned-posters, the vast majority protesting injustice. The New York-city bred artist is the son of union organizers and spent many days prowling through museums as a child. He moved west and studied art at San Francisco State and then Stanford, receiving an MFA from Stanford in 1978. Since the mid-eighties, Conal has been engaged in a process that typically begins in the studio with the solitary process of oil painting, and from there, proceeds in a series of connections with others. First the painting is photographed; next it is transformed into a high quality poster; and finally that is pasted up in major cities around the U.S. with the help of teams of hundreds of volunteers.

Conal is best known for satirical portraits combined with witty albeit biting critique (to name a few iconic examples, "Art Official/Artificial" with an image of Senator Jesse Helms and "Contra/Diction" with the visage of Ronald Reagan), but the Mandela poster is not his first with a hopeful and positive sensibility. In 2002, Conal created a triptych with three of the world's most powerful and peaceful leaders, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Martin Luther King, paired with the words, respectively, "Watching, Waiting, Dreaming." The posters were plastered around major cities across the U.S. and comprised the first hopeful portrait Conal had made in 20 years.

I was fascinated that the longtime artist-provocateur would opt for such a positive and hopeful image during that intensely challenging time and was eager to ask him about it. When I arrived, Conal was researching a South African musician he had recently learned of, Philip Tabane. We talked about art, books, travel, and he showed me a video of Tabane's band playing. Conal mentioned that it was interesting to listen to the spaces between the notes -- what Tabane chose not to play. On reflection, that approach shares a sense of precision with Conal's own concise choice of words paired with imagery. When I ask about the triptych, Conal patiently explained that he made it in response to his outrage at American aggression following 9/11. In language that could easily have graced one of his posters, he said of the Patriot Act that the government "substituted surveillance for civil liberties."

Robbie Conal | Photo: Todd Caranto.
Robbie Conal | Photo: Todd Caranto.

Many people were frustrated and scared during that time, but not many asked, as Conal did, "If Gandhi were watching us, what would he think? Isn't there another avenue to social and political change?" In depicting these heroic leaders -- striking icons of an alternative to the route the U.S. was taking at the time -- Conal used the same process but with a different mindset. His challenge was to, as he puts it, "take what was designed as an adversarial process and use it in a celebratory way." He began with Gandhi, gradually laying paint on canvas, layer after layer, in his additive process that builds to a thick surface from which a face gradually emerges. From there he completed the other two paintings and began the poster triptych.

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Since that time, Conal has often made portraits of admired subjects, including Thelonious Monk and William S. Burroughs, but the Mandela poster is the first to be widely distributed in the U.S. since 2002. Like that triptych and many satirical campaigns before it, Conal will take the Mandela posters on tour. Beginning in February, he and Ross will begin a five-state journey, inviting both loyal and new volunteers to post the image of a smiling Mandela around the Bay Area, Seattle, Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York. Conal explains, "One thing painting can do is that it can get through the surface of someone's face to their character, their soul." This is particularly poignant in the Mandela image, begun in commemoration and transformed by time and circumstances into an apt memorial.

As I wrap up my visit, Conal and Ross jointly recall the week leading up to the local Mandela posting. Ross recalls reaching out to their network of friends and supporters, "We sent the email out on Monday [Dec. 2] and by Wednesday, we had about 50 RSVPs. Two days later [after Mandela's death on December 5], another 100 plus had responded." By Saturday December 7, the night planned to poster the town, more than 200 volunteers had gathered to participate. "It was a genuine emotional outpouring," Conal says. On my way home, I spot the four posters and pull over to get a better look. The bright smiling faces seem to hover in space on the dark expanse of the wall: Mandela, walking and dancing.

Robbie Conal at Canter's | Photo: Jerra Spence
Robbie Conal at Canter's | Photo: Jerra Spence

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