Mythologising a Legend

December 2013

A book on Mandela’s prison
Nelson Mandela was an incredible human being. We all think so, but Koto Bolofo thinks so most. He has taken it upon himself to walk in Mandela’s shoes during the segment of his life that comprised of imprisonment on Robben Island. Capturing in images the details of this special man’s existence during that period by documenting all that he would have seen and done, in addition to the remnants and marks he left behind, the otherwise fashion photographer has made visible the evidence that testifies to Nelson Mandela’s time in confinement, thereby paying him great tribute. DAMn° spoke with Bolofo about the emotive experience of getting so up-close. 
As a South African refugee growing up in Britain, Koto Bolofo mythologised the then incarcerated Nelson Mandela and his stance against apartheid. Bolofo's schoolteacher father and his family had fled their native country in the 1960s after his Marxist views were criticised by White school inspectors. Now, Bolofo has made a book of black-and-white photography about Robben Island, the notorious South African prison where Mandela – who later became the country's first black president – was imprisoned for 18 years. In Bolofo's hands, a subject matter that could easily have appeared hard-hitting and vengeful is treated in an elegantly composed way, which makes the impact of the images more haunting and lingering.
 
Based on the west coast of France, Koto Bolofo is a 54-year-old fashion photographer who shoots editorials for the likes of Vogue and Vanity Fair, and adverts for Hermès and Louis Vuitton. He has brought his poetic, subdued style to the book about Robben Island, which serves as a document to the history of the prison and to the legacy of Mandela, the ailing 95-year-old Nobel Prize winner.
 
Bolofo's graphic, fragmentary images relate to the circumstances of what would have been Mandela's daily reality, with a forensic attention to detail. On view are Mandela’s metal cup, saucer, spoon, and tiny bowl; the shabby bucket in the corner; the key in the paint-chipped keyhole; the rudimentary single bed with its thin mattress and coarse blanket. It's as if Bolofo is taking you on a silent, guided tour, from stepping onto the boat that once took prisoners to Robben Island, on through the prison's corridors, into Mandela's cell, and then out to the limestone quarry where he laboured.The first time Bolofo photographed Robben Island was in 1992, when he and his German wife, fellow photographer Claudia Van Ryssen-Bolofo, visited South Africa to see Bolofo's parents, who had returned there following Mandela's release from prison in 1990. “Claudia said, 'You have to go back – it's your country, you left when you were four.'” Although the No Blacks Allowed signs had since disappeared, Bolofo felt that racism was still prevalent. He mentions how he and his wife felt discriminated against in restaurants, where they would wait ages to be served because they were a mixed-race couple.
 
Recalling how they caught the same boat that had transported prisoners to Robben Island, which has since been replaced by large tourist boats, Bolofo says, “There were about six people on board, and you started to simulate yourself, as if you were a prisoner.” One of the first images in the book is a photo taken by Van Ryssen-Bolofo of her husband's hands during this boat ride. “My wife took pictures of my hands, as if I were measuring up the landscape with them”, he says.“All that prettiness – Table Mountain, the clouds, the beach – starts to disappear, and you're on your way to No Man's Land. You get there, and somehow it's sunny, and you read this big, graphic sign that says Welcome to Robben Island. You think of the word ‘robben’ as being the name of a bird, but it's not spelt like that. You become inquisitive.” (The name of the island is Robbeneiland in Afrikaans, which actually translatesas Seal Island).
 
A feeling of implacable horror struck Bolofo the moment he saw Mandela's cell. “You get to the B section, where the prominent political prisoners were, by walking down this cold, coarse corridor”, he recalls. “After the second or third cell, you get to Nelson Mandela's. The knife goes into your stomach. It twists at the bitterness and angriness of seeing that barred cell. You could see the actual dents in his tiny metal dinner plate. You have to really see yourself in his 2m by 2.5m cell, where you can only just stretch-out your arms, to understand how small it is. It's just cruel, like the devil came to earth and said, 'This is what we can do.' It is unbelievable how sub-humanity can put people in prison because they want a thing called ‘rights’, just hoping they'll disappear and that other people will forget about them. My wife was strong enough to say, 'Look, we have to take some pictures because perhaps this place will cease to exist.'”
Given his incandescent reaction, Bolofo was astonished that his subsequent photographs weren't full of spite. “I looked at the pictures and thought, I didn't capture that pain. I didn't make it gritty enough. It doesn't look like a Don McCullin picture of Vietnam that makes you think: God, I don't want to go to that place. I've lived with my body and my spirit for a long time, and I said to myself, You can hear all about somebody’s pain and suffering, but when you project something, you project it in a very poetical way. You're not there to say: This is really ugly, you are just going to look at ugly, and I'm just going to put ugly in your brain.”
 
Bolofo took more photographs on further trips to South Africa, sneaking off to Robben Island –once a leper colony – whenhe had some free time between fashion shoots. Over those three years, the place became more commercial, and a museum was built. As he says, “In the museum shop, you have re-creations of Nelson Mandela's cup and spoon and T-shirts. I hate to say the word Disney, but it's a little bit in keeping with that, which has a positive side too, because it sustains the legacy.”
 
At the end of the book, Bolofo added 60 pages containing the names, sentences, release dates, and prison numbers of all the political prisoners that were incarcerated at Robben Island – it is information he found on a website that has since been removed. “I thought, I've got a gold mine here, I've got the names”, he says. There's also a re-photographed picture of a group of barefoot African prisoners arriving at the prison, all wearing khaki shirts and shorts. Racial discrimination extended to their uniforms, as Bolofo explains. “The Indians had long trousers, a pullover, a shirt, and shoes, whereas the Africans were made to wear shorts, short-sleeved shirts, and shoes made of rubber tires.”
 
Despite trying in vain to meet Mandela, Bolofo has never even come close, saying, “It [the security around him] became like a fortress, only the wealthy were in front [of the queue] because they could donate.” Instead, Bolofo has photographed the tree that Mandela planted in Regent's Park in London in 1996. “Nelson Mandela is a living saint”, proclaims Bolofo. “Robben Island was the heartbeat that made me realise you have to win and to show them that it's not about the colour of somebody's skin but about their skill and ability to do something in a very positive way.”
The Prison, Koto Bolofo and Claudia Van Ryssen-Bolofo, published by Steidl, 2013.
This article appeared in DAM41. Order your personal copy.