Meet the artist behind Mandela’s ‘Tears of Freedom’

Thursday May 21 2020

Kateete says meeting Mandela changed his life

Kateete says meeting Mandela changed his life as an artist. COURTESY PHOTO. 


A week before the release of South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela from Robben Island, where he had been imprisoned for 27 years, excitement engulfed different parts of the African continent.

The activism by African National Congress (ANC), a political party under which he causatively led large scale demonstration against apartheid laws, was lively beyond South Africa’s (SA) borders.

At the Loreto Convent Msongari, a school in Nairobi, Kenya, an impromptu staff meeting was called. Its principle, Sr. Pauline Boas, a British nun of Ugandan origin who had studied in SA, was an anti-apartheid activist. As part of celebrations to mark Mandela’s release from prison, she suggested that students draw portraits of Madiba- a Xhosa tribe moniker for respect and affection.

Leonard Kateete was a teacher of art at the school. He seconded the idea and also decided to draw a portrait of the man he admired for the resilience he had exhibited in bearing almost three decades in prison for a cause he believed in and stood for.

Tears of freedom
At that point, Kateete did not know that the finesse he put into the portrait, titled ‘Tears of Freedom’, would be his ticket to meeting Mandela, and his painting chosen among thousands to be placed in the Nelson Mandela National Museum located at house 8115, Orlando West, Soweto, on Vilakazi Street in Johannesburg, which the writer has visited.


In fact, the actualisation of this story started when he recently posted a selfie against the painting on his Instagram page and a follower said it was done by a Ugandan artist. Intrigued, the writer reached out to Kateete who accepted to give an interview via the Zoom App.

At 8pm, on February 4, 1990, Kateete says he got hold of a Time Magazine in which Mandela’s photograph had been published. With it, he started making sketches, a process that lasted till 3am. He asked a colleague, a grounds man with Madiba’s resemblance to pause for him in order to give the portrait a more natural look. When it was done, the artist hang it out on a fence to dry.

Everyone who saw it, complimented Kateete for the beautiful accomplishment. The icing on the cake was when about 20 birds gathered around the painting, making all kinds of beautiful music. To him, this seemed like an approval by nature. The painting is a split image of the freedom fighter’s face and captures detail of his mood with Robben Island in the background.

Meeting Madiba
The principal was astonished. She invited an official from ANC who too, was amazed by the artistic representation of Mandela. He asked Kateete to sell the painting to the party but he declined.

“No amount of money was worth that painting. I felt that only Nelson Mandela deserved it,” he explains.
On his release, Mandela visited Ethiopia and Nairobi.
Kateete was scheduled to meet him in Nairobi and present him with the portrait. Mandela told ANC officials in Kenya that he wanted to meet the artiste on the morning of his departure, between 8 and 9am.

With his wife, they arrived at state house in time to present the gift to Mandela and their 40-minute chat is still fresh in the 69-year-old’s mind. “When he unwrapped the painting, I saw surprise in his eyes. Everyone in the room seemed to be in awe,” the Nairobi-based artist recollects.

In 1972, he made a mosaic of President Idi Amin, hoping to use it for exposure. He presented it at State House and he was paid Shs1,000, a big sum at the time, through the Central Bank.

He was encouraged so he made another mosaic of the president. This time, Kateete was put in contact with Princess Elizabeth Bagaya, the then minister of foreign affairs who introduced him to President Amin and his cabinet, before which he made a presentation of his works.

The princess had plans of starting a special school for talented students and Kateete became a beneficiary. In 1973, he joined the school of fine art at Makerere University. He went on to pursue a post graduate diploma in art education between 1978 and ‘79.

In 1980, he fled Uganda for Nairobi for fear of his life since he was seen as being close to the Amin regime. Although his first wife passed on, Kateete remarried and has four children.

Kateete standing next to a portrait of the late
Kateete standing next to a portrait of the late Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. COURTESY PHOTO.

“For a number of years, I have been commissioned to make gift mosaic pieces for individuals and communities. I taught mosaic at Mengo High School for one year and made a portrait of President Richard Nixon and his family, which is displayed in the Nixon Museum in USA,” he explains.

In 1991, he painted Samburu and Rendile couples, which created an opportunity for him to make paintings for many traditional homes of different Kenyan, Ugandan, Tanzanian and Sudanese tribes. As Kenya celebrated 50 years of independence, Kateete was recognised for preservation of the country’s heritage.

“Additionally, I have mentored and still mentor youth in different aspects of art,” he concludes.

The beginning
Born in 1951 to Deziderio and Anna Walungama at Kayabwe in Mawokota, Mpigi District, Leonard Kateete says he started admiring being an artist at nine years of age while at the then Nkozi Teacher Training School.
One day, during the way of the cross, women painted the way with coloured chalk and drew patterns that he admired. When he returned home, he started making patterns, beginning his creativity journey.
When he joined Gombe Secondary School in 1965, art was one of the subjects and he was glad to attend the class. At Namilyango College, he further developed his craft as a painter. In 1969, an art competition was organised by Moroccans and he emerged winner and received a gold medal.
“The Casablanca Art Competition changed my life. It was a big assurance that I would be an artiste.

What they say

Lydia Galavu, curator National museums of Kenya
“Kenya is proud and blessed to have Leonard Kateete whose art has over the years become part of our country’s heritage. Most significant are his oil paintings of African communities, 24 of which hang at the National Museums of Kenya.”

Fr Tony Fernandes- Dominic Savio Retreat Centre
“Leonard Kateete’s capacity to direct and guide young African talent to bring to life his imaginative artistry is proof of his amazing talent and skill. Artists for me are ‘loners’ but Kateete is very social.”