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Jitish Kallat creates a numerical biography of Nelson Mandela

In an immersive installation, Jitish Kallat maps Nelson Mandela’s desk calendars from his long imprisonment

Jitish Kallat at the Mayibuye Archive in South Africa. Image: courtesy the artist
Jitish Kallat at the Mayibuye Archive in South Africa. Image: courtesy the artist

At the ongoing India Art Fair in Delhi, an immersive installation puts forth the ideas of resilience and hope in the face of incarceration. It also showcases artist Jitish Kallat’s ongoing investigation of the notion and scale of time. Like his earlier works, Covering Letter (2012) and Terranum Nuncius (2020), in Antumbra (2024) too—a special artist project being presented by the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art in collaboration with the JSW Group—a historical artefact becomes a site of deliberation.

Kallat presents a numerical biography of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first President, by mapping his desk calendars from 1976-82, a period of his long incarceration on Robben Island and in other prisons. An immersive magnification of the calendars on a vaporous film of mist—complete with annotations by the leader, notes about his blood pressure and heart rate, details of weight and more—form the core of this installation. Kallat first came across these “objects” nearly a decade ago in Mandela’s book Conversations With Myself, which drew on his personal archive of materials that the world had not been privy to before. It stayed in his subconscious.

Kallat’s deliberations over the calendar hail from his interest in the different facets of time—be it biological, clock or calendrical time. In his work, the Mumbai-based artist constantly interrogates how time changes with context, what it holds and what it can tell us. “All these questions drew me to the calendars. Over the next few years (from the time of reading Conversations With Myself), whenever I would find an image on the internet, I would add it to a folder. Eventually, the Nelson Mandela Foundation uploaded a remarkable documentation of these online from their archive,” he says. Every artwork has its own gestation period, and after years of being a work in progress in Kallat’s subconscious, Antumbra finally gained momentum in the last couple of months to acquire the shape that it has today.

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Nelson Mandela's desk calendar dated 25-31 December, 1983. Courtesy: Nelson Mandela Foundation, Johannesburg
Nelson Mandela's desk calendar dated 25-31 December, 1983. Courtesy: Nelson Mandela Foundation, Johannesburg

“These calendars were Nelson Mandela’s companions for at least two-thirds of his 27-year-long imprisonment on Robben Island and two other prisons. They are essentially a ceaseless flow of numbers, with the cycle of 30-31 days coming up repeatedly. Within this relentlessness also lies absolute emptiness—for, many of the dates go without any entries,” says Kallat. For most of us, calendars are forward-looking, wherein you make plans for the future. However, in the isolation of a prison cell, where there seemed to be no future to look forward to, these markers of time became diaristic in a way. They feature notations about a recent dream, an occasional visit. There are markings of Mandela’s heart rate, 200-odd blood pressure records and body weight.

“Calendrical time begins to receive other kinds of time, such as cardiac time. The calendars carry inscriptions that occasionally perforate it and receive signals from far away. So, for instance, an entry dated 13 June 1980 notes the details of India’s general election, with vote share of different political parties mentioned,” says Kallat. But surprisingly, the significant Soweto Uprising of 1976, which took place on the other side of Robben Island, finds no mention, indicating the limited manner in which information trickled into the confines of a prison cell. “The calendars become witness to certain absence and presence. And through it all, they remain a companion in a struggle for justice,” he adds. “In Antumbra, they come alive as witnesses to a certain time, person and moment in history.”

Viewers can see calendars as vaporous objects at the centre of the room. It feels like walking through a time capsule. If you choose to remain present throughout the four-hour cycle of this video installation, it will be like journeying through long years of Mandela’s incarceration.

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The imagery of the calendars stands out—the dates are accompanied by spectacular images of the glorious outdoors, beaches, wildlife, architecture and art. These photographs—almost clinical in their beauty—offer a stark contrast to the poignancy of the calendars as markers of isolation and struggle.

“These calendars were procured from South Africa’s tourism department. And now when you look at them, they seem like painfully paradoxical objects,” says Kallat. One line, ‘It is Sunny Today in South Africa’, repeats itself through most of the calendars. “Ironically we know that sunshine played an extreme role in the life of the person who possessed these calendars—absence of sunshine in the prison cell and excess of sunshine during the hard labour at the lime quarry. These objects become so layered and complex,” he says.

The different elements in the installation are derived from the calendars. One can see a short video featuring close-ups of the blood pressure records. There is a constant movement of numbers across the work. Yet another frame has a set of three calculations in Mandela’s handwriting. “Each sum signifies key milestones: years in prison, his age at initial detention, and his age upon release. Alongside this arithmetic is a video of Mandela’s blood pressure readings, carefully noted in his prison calendars. Additionally, the work highlights a recurring motif of the sun and moon in transition, forming cycles of days and nights visible across multiple pages of these calendars,” reads an excerpt from a transcript of a conversation between Kallat and Judge Albie Sachs, renowned South African jurist, author and human rights activist. Kallat was there to do research and the conversation took place in Cape Town on 4 December 2023.

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In Antumbra, the drawings of the sun, followed by the moon, and then again the sun, emerge in a circadian-like rhythm. The imagery gets multiplied and illuminated inside a wall. In her essay, Reflections On Jitish Kallat’s Antumbra, art historian Beth D. Citron, director museum engagement at Nature Morte gallery, states that both through the device of the screen and its title, the installations enact a layered relationship between light and shadow, “as it references the moment in an eclipse when a ring-shaped light begins to appear around the occluding body. The event passes and the sun seems to shine even more brightly, a conviction Mandela held onto for South Africa and the world, and one that, in these dark times, we all hope would mirror the trite tourist slogan, repeated until true.”

Antumbra can be viewed at India Art Fair, NSIC Grounds, Okhla, Delhi till 4 February

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