South Africa

Nelson Mandela Foundation photographer shows images from anti-apartheid icon’s last years

  • Matthew Willman’s photographs, featured in Hong Kong exhibition, show his close relationship with South Africa’s first post-apartheid president
  • He also focuses on Mandela charity’s conservation work with orphaned baby rhinos
PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 6:00pm

Matthew Willman is well aware of how privileged he’s been. For 10 years he was commissioned to take photographs for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and during that time captured intimate moments with the late South African anti-apartheid leader.

Willman says being involved with the foundation, a non-profit organisation established by Mandela in 1999 to promote his vision of freedom and equality, allowed him to pursue his passion for wildlife conservation, especially the protection of rhinos.

“Mandela and I would meet twice a month and talk about he foundation’s research,” says Willman, a South African. The foundation focused on education, the environment and health care, in particular HIV/Aids.

The fruits of his time photographing with the foundation is “The Mandela/Rhino Heritage collection”. Comprising 16 images – nine images of rhinoceroses and seven portraits of Mandela, who died in 2013 – the collection is being shown in Asia for the first time at the Areteos Art Gallery in Hong Kong.

This year marks the 100th birthday of Mandela’s birth, and Willman’s photographs show his close relationship with South Africa’s first post-apartheid president.

Among the photographs on show is one called Stones of Remembrance, Robben Island. From 1961, Robben Island was used by the South African government as a prison for political prisoners and convicted criminals. Mandela spent 18 of his 26 years in prison on the island.

The picture was taken in 1992 when Mandela returned to Robben Island to officially close it. To mark the occasion he picked up a stone from the lime quarry where prisoners used to work, placed it on the ground and told the world that the stone symbolised his decision to forgive.

Mandela understood that if he did not forgive he would remain a prisoner to his enemy. He encouraged other former political prisoners attending that day to find a stone and do the same. The resulting collection of stones became known as “The Stones of Remembrance”.

Several of Willman’s images focus on the work of the foundation’s Zululand Conservation Trust, which looks after orphaned rhinos in South Africa.

“In South Africa we lost 267 rhinos alone this year. It’s a problem and it’s only getting worse.”

The animals are killed by poachers for their horns, which are valued in East Asia for their supposed medicinal properties and as objects to carve.

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Some special “autographed” prints are also on show.

“I was looking for ways to make my photographs more personal, more creative,” says Willman. “Then my friend Annie had a great idea to let the rhinos leave a footprint on each one. It was a tricky task – these animals weigh up to 600kg – so there was a danger, but after two days and a lot of patience it worked.”

Annie is Annie Lennox, the singer with 1980s band The Eurythmics and a long-time friend of Willman with whom he holidays with each year in Cape Town, South Africa.

The Mandela/Rhino Heritage Collection, Areteos Art Gallery, G4, 1 Hollywood Road, Central, until December 1. Inquiries: 2203 4530