This proposal for a memorial to Nelson Mandela is located on an ocean view site on the grounds of Skylawn Memorial Park in San Mateo, CA. Perhaps the greatest and most inspiring aspect of Nelson Mandela’s pursuit of equality and social justice was the fortitude with which he endured his 27-year incarceration in South African prisons and the grace with which he treated his Afrikaner captors when eventually granted freedom in 1990. Entitled “Captive Free”, the memorial is conceived as an exploded version of Mandela’s prison cell at Robben Island. Four massive bronze wall panels have been separated from one another at their bases and then skewed as they rise 15’ above the circular concrete pad at grade. As viewers approach the memorial, the eastern wall panel greets them with Mandela’s image and his quote, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the wall panels actually extend down into an excavated space with an interior measuring 8’ long x 7’ wide x 8’ deep-the exact same dimensions as the cell that confined Mandela for 18 years of his imprisonment.
The bronze panels and rough black granite that form the cell walls and floor shade the interior space from direct sunlight. Though otherwise dark, there is one surprising element that draws the viewer’s immediate attention as they peer down. A single polished slab of black granite is elevated inches above the cell floor with a thin layer of water flowing gently over its surface and down its edges. On its surface is reflected the crisp image of cotton white clouds as they float across the blue sky above. The viewer is invited to contemplate how it might be that this tranquility can exist within such a confinement. As they do so, the viewer may draw parallels to the Nelson Mandela quotes and life timeline that are etched on to the interior sides of the towering bronze panels. The memorial interior is experienced by looking inward from one of the four separations between the bronze panels or at the small window void in the north panel (meant to further recall the original prison cell). By intention, the viewer looks downward to the reflecting slab as well as diagonally across the space where other visitors would likely be standing, the landscape and Pacific Ocean stretching behind them. As the viewer proceeds to each opening around the memorial and repeats the process, might he or she ponder the diversity and humanity within each of the other souls sharing this experience? One can only hope, as Nelson Mandela did.