The good fight

Hundreds plaster LA with Robbie Conal posters of Nelson Mandela 

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 12/12/2013

Art Aids Art, the Altadena-based nonprofit organization that collaborates with and empowers poverty stricken women in a South Africa township has teamed up with LA-based artist Robbie Conal for the release of a special edition poster featuring Nelson Mandela, who died last week in Johannesburg at age 95.
Conal is known for his infamous street “Art Attacks” addressing war, social injustice and environmental issues. The collaboration was inspired by the upcoming 20th anniversary of Mandela’s inauguration as South Africa’s first democratically elected president, a culmination of his life’s work for racial equality.
“The printed posters happened to arrive on the day of his passing,” said Dorothy Garcia, co-founder of Art Aids Art, which will distribute 5,000 posters throughout South Africa in Mandela’s honor. It is expected to be one of the largest public art projects in South African history. 
In Khayelitsha, located in the city of Cape Town, “The response [to Mandela’s death] was one of overwhelming grief and loss, for so many people regard him as a father,” said Art Aids Art co-founder Tom Harding. “But there has also been celebration of a life well lived in the spirit of ‘ubuntu,’ the southern African value that translates to ‘there is no me without you.’ Our endeavor is to provide local residents with an image of ‘Tata Madiba,’ as he is affectionately known, a reminder of the spirit he embodies — hope, unity, dignity, perseverance — and a tangible object to proudly display, a symbol of the love so many feel in their hearts.”
On Friday, Conal and about 200 volunteers gathered at Canter’s Deli on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles to conduct his latest Art Attack, which consisted of plastering the city with about 800 of the Mandela posters. During Conal’s instructions on how to glue the posters to various surfaces, three LAPD officers showed up to speak with the artist. They read his meeting announcement online and knew what the group planned to do, which they told Conal was illegal without a permit. Conal gave the cops posters and told the group to plaster the posters in other municipalities. 
“Aren’t there, unfortunately, many more egregious infractions of the law to protect our citizenry from than a motley rainbow gaggle of grieving yet enthusiastic citizens putting up celebratory images of one of the greatest freedom fighters and inspirational statesmen who ever lived the night after he passed away?” Conal asked.
Larger than life
Following the news of Mandela’s death, there was an outpouring of support online from just about everybody, including local community leaders.
“Few can be described as changing the course of history — Nelson Mandela is one of them,” said Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Burbank). “We have lost a leader who guided his people and nation from the evils of apartheid and towards a brighter future as the ‘rainbow nation.’ The true measure of his greatness was his extraordinary magnanimity and lack of bitterness towards those who had imprisoned him for a seeming eternity. When he emerged from Victor Verster prison in 1990 and for the rest of his life, Mandela preached peace and reconciliation. His example and towering moral authority were enough to prevent a bloodbath during the early 1990s. South Africa’s peaceful evolution is due in large measure to his outsized influence. One of the true giants of the last century is gone.”
Mandela was indeed a larger-than-life figure with a seemingly inhuman capacity for forgiveness and compassion. After he spent 27 years in South African prisons he negotiated with his captors to bring a peaceful end to apartheid and avoid a civil war that nearly everyone felt was inevitable.
While in South Africa last year to see Art Aids Art in action, the Pasadena Weekly traveled to Robben Island to see Mandela’s prison cell. The island guide took the tour group to the limestone quarry where Mandela worked for 13 years. The limestone is so bright that it blinded many prisoners, and indeed for the rest of his life people were not allowed to take flash pictures of Mandela because his tear ducts had dried out. He was also unable to cry. 
The resistance leaders, including Mandela, were held in the maximum-security building, separated in their own cells. The guide said there were four main activities  the prisoners would do when they were left alone by the guards: political education and analysis; stealing and reading newspapers; cultural activities like dancing, songs of freedom, stage plays and standup comedy; and literacy education, because about half the prison’s population was illiterate.  
In the maximum-security wing is Mandela’s former cell, a heartbreakingly small, plain space to spend the better part of two decades. Mandela had told the guide on one of his 14 trips back to the island since his release that one of the hardest parts of his prison experience was not being able to see children, and that there is no way to explain how disheartening that was for him.
Empty gesture
In the 1980s in Pasadena, there were perceived economic reasons to continue to support the oppressive South African regime. Pasadena was one of the first cities that took formal steps to divest from South Africa during apartheid, but as former Mayor Bill Paparian pointed out, it was an empty gesture at first. In 1986 the then-Board of City Directors, as the City Council was known, adopted an ordinance banning city investment in companies that did business with South Africa. However, the city itself did not have any investments with such companies. 
“The ordinance had no application at all because there were no investments in companies doing business in South Africa,” said Paparian. “It was an empty-suited policy.”
Paparian was elected to the board in 1987 and started asking questions about the divestment policy. When he pointed out that the Fire and Police Retirement Board had stocks related to South Africa, he said the old guard at City Hall became uncomfortable.
“There were enough investments with South Africa to make people uncomfortable,” he said. “Ultimately we prevailed and the divestment policy was applied to the retirement fund.”
The concern by some was that divestment from South Africa would mean losing money or jeopardizing investments. In fact, the retirement board refused to sell their South Africa-related stocks for two years for that very reason, according to an Oct. 6, 1988 article in the LA Times. The city ordered the pension board to divest and sell the stocks within a year. Paparian said at the time that even if divestment would mean a loss in profits the city should be willing to bear that burden rather than support companies that deal with an openly racist government.
“That is the price you pay for taking a principled position,” Paparian is quoted as saying in the article.
Fellow City Director Rick Cole agreed. 
“It seems real simple to me,” Cole is also quoted as saying. “Maybe we can make more money, but that’s not the type of profits I want any part of.”
Cole also went on to become mayor of Pasadena.
“I’m reminded that Nelson Mandela was a global humanitarian,” said Paparian. “As an Armenian I remember when he was invited to Turkey to receive the Atatürk Peace Prize in 1992 and he refused to go because of Turkey’s abysmal human rights record. It’s important to remember that not only did he courageously lead the way for the liberation of the indigenous people of South Africa, but he was also a human rights champion globally.” n
For more information on Art Aids Art’s Mandela poster project, visit