Project to link painter, Mandela: Nancy Noel collaborates on S. African’s Unity Series

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In Africa, Nelson Mandela is called Madiba, a term of respect that connotes wisdom and a fatherly status.

Through a twist of fate, local artist Nancy Noel is one of 39 artists from around the world who can say that, for a brief time, they called Mandela a collaborator.

Noel is participating in Mandela’s Unity Series, the latest artistic effort from the South African revolutionary.

To fans of Noel’s widely popular contemporary realism paintings of angels and Amish children, her selection as a participant in a project involving Nelson Mandela might seem curious. But as regular visitors to her northwest-side gallery know, Noel has had a lifelong love affair with Africa and its people that manifests itself in her work and everyday life. For Noel, the chance to work with Mandela was destiny, she said. “It changed my life,” she said. “It inspired me.” Ever the savvy businesswoman, Noel also realizes that the Unity Series will change her business, too. “I always had this feeling that someday something was going to happen, something really big, that would bring me to a whole new arena in terms of viewers and experience,” she said. The Unity Series will be that big thing, Noel predicts. Noel first traveled to Africa 17 years ago, fulfilling a childhood dream of visiting the continent. She is involved with several African charities addressing medical and wildlife issues and solely supports a preschool with more than 100 students on Rusinga Island in Kenya’s Lake Victoria.

It was a contact made through one of her frequent trips to the continent that led to her involvement with Mandela’s camp. A well-connected associate there knew her artwork and suggested her as one of the participants.

Mandela entered the art world in 2003, when he released colorful sketches inspired by his 18-year imprisonment at Robben Island as a way to raise money for his various African charities.

This time around, Mandela made six charcoal sketches. Five of them are of hands and bear simple titles-Struggle, Imprisonment, Future, Freedom and Unity. The sixth is a text artist statement.

Prints of the six sketches were sent to Noel and the other 38 artists, who embellished them with their visual ideas.

After finding out last year that she would be participating in the project, Noel said, she researched Mandela’s life and particularly his 18-year imprisonment at Robben Island.

When she received Mandela’s sketches last March, she had three months to complete them. The selected artists were given no guidelines on what to add to the prints and weren’t told which other artists were working on the project.

Noel said she initially was nearly frozen with anxiety over what to add. The paper the sketches were on required her to use pastels rather than her typical acrylic paint, and she had to work around the hands in the middle of each sheet.

She made a preliminary drawing for one of the sketches, then realized she should focus on what she knows-faces and images that have stayed with her from her African visits. She finished the remaining five works without the benefit of preliminary drawings.

The works of each of the 39 artists were turned into 86 sets of prints, one for each year of Mandela’s life. They are being sold through the Touch of Mandela galleries in South Africa and Australia. Noel’s original works have already sold-the first ones to do so.

“We anticipate that the collaboration works will be very popular and will be received very well since Mandela is such an icon and many of the artists involved in the project are highly acclaimed,” said Laura Hunter, one of the owners of London’s Belgravia Gallery, via e-mail.

Belgravia, which also shows works by the Prince of Wales and other notable figures, showed Mandela’s Robben Island series in 2003 and expects to begin showing the Unity Series in late April.

Other artists participating in the series include Amsterdam-based Marlene Dumas, whose work hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and other museums around the world.

Six other Americans were chosen to participate in the Unity Series: Charles Bibbs; California-based David Brady; self-taught Southern artist Thornton Dial; American Indian George Longfish; and Memphis-based identical twins Jerry and Terry Lynn.

Being put in such rarefied company would be a major step for any artist and, in this case, for Indianapolis, said Keira Amstutz, the city’s director of cultural affairs.

“This is another terrific sign that our Indianapolis artists are making a major impact in the world,” Amstutz said. “We know that, but I think a lot of people in the community don’t know that.”

For Noel, her golden opportunity to reach a worldwide audience is also forcing her to make decisions about the direction of her gallery. She said she has always strived to make her art affordable, selling prints and books containing her artwork to reach out to people who can’t afford a few thousand dollars for a Noel original.

The Unity Series will almost certainly increase demand-and prices-for her work. Noel, who has sold more than 1 million prints since she began publishing them in 1982, is considering moving her gallery from its Park 100 location to a more upscale locale.

She worries, though, about the price of her work excluding some clients. Nearly every day, Noel said, she receives calls and letters from parents of children who have died, saying one of her popular angel paintings reminds them of their lost child.

“I can’t desert those people,” she said.

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