The artist, Yiull Damaso, argues South Africa must confront a subject that remains almost taboo: the future death of Mandela. Now frail and in retirement, the country's first black president turns 92 later this month. The painting has the same name as Rembrandt's and has been on display for two days at a shopping mall in Johannesburg. Its reproduction on the front page of today's Mail & Guardian newspaper provoked a furious response from the ruling African National Congress
"The ANC is appalled and strongly condemns in the strongest possible terms the dead Mandela painting by Yiull Damaso," said Jackson Mthembu, a party spokesman. "It is in bad taste, disrespectful, and it is an insult and an affront to values of our society.
"In African society it is a foreign act of ubuthakathi (bewitch) to kill a living person and this so-called work of art … is also racist. It goes further by violating Tat' uMandela's dignity by stripping him naked in the glare of curious onlookers, some of whom have seen their apartheid ideals die before them." Mthembu added that Mandela was an international icon who should be cherished and respected. "That is why we are more shocked and disgusted this so called art that depicts a dead Madiba.
"Why would anyone dream of a dead Madiba [Mandela's clan name]? Why would newspapers including the Mail and Guardian put to prominence this work of rubbish in their publication? Why would a respected public space and business site, Hyde Park, be a home for the creation of such insulting work to our icon, our leaders and all of us?"
But Damaso, 41, from Johannesburg, is unrepentant, insisting that he is using the image to convey a political argument.
"The idea just popped up in my head," he told the Guardian today . "We have Nelson Mandela, one of the great leaders of our time, and the politicians around him are trying to find out what makes him a great man. Nkosi Johnson, the only one in the painting who's no longer alive, is trying to show them that Mandela is just a man. So they should stop searching and get on with building the country."
Damaso – who caused controversy a decade ago by depicting Mandela with dreadlocks – said he had received a phone call from a friend of the family claiming one of Mandela's daughters was distraught after seeing the image. But he insisted: "I knew the family would not be happy but I hope they will listen to my side of the story and my huge admiration for Nelson Mandela. I'm trying to convey a message to politicians." Damaso, whose own grandmother died two weeks ago, added: "The death of Nelson Mandela is something we're going to have to face, not only as a family but all of us as individuals and as a nation."The Nelson Mandela Foundation declined to comment.