A Look at Freedom

Nelson Mandela’s struggle will be featured at the Freedom Center in a new exhibit.

Mike Boyer

This summer visitors to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center have the opportunity to relive Nelson Mandela’s struggle over apartheid in South Africa.

The world premiere of “Mandela: The Journey to Ubuntu,” commemorates the life and legacy of the former South African president, who died in 2013, through photographs by Matthew Willman, who revisited many of the locations that played an important role in Mandela’s personal fight for freedom and South Africa’s road to racial equality.

“We want the audience to walk in and feel as if they’re back in Africa,” says Willman, who spent a decade documenting Mandela’s life. The exhibit, which runs through Aug. 20, comes as the world marks Mandala’s 99th birthday on July 18.

The exhibition features about 60 photographs, a few reproduced as large as a room, and artifacts from Mandela’s life as part of an immersive experience that includes sound and music.

“This is a museum but it’s not about gawking about history but relating things so the visitor has an emotional attachment to the message here,” says Willman, a documentary photographer. “We want people to be transformed by the experience and take something away from it.”

Willman himself was transformed when he saw Mandela as a teenager in South Africa.

“I saw Mandela for the first time when I was 15 from about 60-80 yards away and I decided that night that this was the man I’m going to commit my life to find,” he says. “I didn’t know his politics, or his faith or anything about him, but I recognized him as an outstanding citizen of my country, a grandfather figure that I could trust. It grew from that and became my whole life.”

The exhibition, the largest since Mandela’s death, came about after John Pepper, the retired Procter & Gamble chairman and Freedom Center patron, reached out to Willman to contact the Mandela family for a presentation of the Center’s 2014 International Freedom Conductor award posthumously to Mandela.

Willman says Pepper suggested he exhibit some of his photos at the Freedom Center. That small exhibition of 15 photos had such a positive response the idea grew. The Freedom Center purchased 12 of Willman’s photos and the idea of a larger exhibition was born. The Freedom Center plans to have the exhibit travel after it closes here.

Willman says the essence of Mandela was his humanity.

“I’d be with him when he was with a philanthropist, a president and royalty and then he’d walk around the corner and chat with the janitor as if they were as important. He was very human like that.”

Willman says one of his favorites among the many photos he took of Mandela was not a full portrait but a close-up of his hands during one of their first meetings.

“We were talking and the sun light came through a window and lit across him, it was beautiful,” he says.

The photo became one of the most intimate ever taken of Mandela and later became a symbol for the fight against HIV and AIDs in Africa.