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Culture

Desmond Tutu: An inspiration for a broken nation

His smile could light up the room. His infectious laughter became his trademark. And despite his fairly small stature, Archbishop Desmond Tutu became known globally as a larger-than-life personality — even in the arts.

Close-up image of mural depicting Desmond Tutu in Cape Town with the words Father of the rainbow nation written just under Tutu's right eye in the painting

Desmond Tutu believed in unity through togetherness and influenced South Africa's arts scene with this approach

Desmond Tutu's impact on issues related to faith, politics and social change traveled way beyond his native South Africa. "The Arch," as many South Africans called the spiritual figure, inspired people from all walks of life, in particular many artists and creative minds around the world.

The former archbishop of Cape Town in the Anglican Church was regarded as an iconic ambassador of the new South African soul, constantly communicating the values he came to embody. Among other things, he achieved this level of recognition and support by attracting various artists to join and accompany him on his pursuit to unite people despite their differences.

Cape Town's Civic Centre with image of Desmond Tutu next to Nelson Mandela on building exterior

Desmond Tutu's image spans across half the height of Cape Town's Civic Centre

In Cape Town — the city he called his home during the second half of his life — numerous statues, murals and even a massive portrait of the Nobel Prize Laureate spanning across a dozen floors on the exterior of the Civic Centre building serve as constant reminders of the central part Tutu played in South Africa's transformation to democracy.

Painting of Desmond sold in Cape Town

Tourists can purchase paintings of Tutu in Cape Town

But his influence can also be felt and seen on much smaller scales as well: Amateur painters selling their canvasses to tourists on St. George's Mall, Cape Town's central shopping street, are also known for capturing his image in their works of art, while DJs in the city — and indeed around the country — to this day continue to remix the archbishop's erudite speeches and sermons from the 1980s to match the smooth electro beats of the present, pumping out a Kwaito music version of Tutu's unmistakable voice.

There even is a popular South African pop band based in Pretoria that is named after him: Desmond and the Tutus.

An inspiration to a torn nation and beyond

Tutu's hopeful message of forgiveness and reconciliation first struck a nerve in South Africa in the 1980s, as the country's rule under apartheid began to shake, and a new era of democratic governance was increasingly becoming a feasible reality. At that time, he began preaching incessantly that everyone in the country must forsake feelings of revenge and retribution, and encouraged South Africans to focus on rebuilding a torn nation together instead.

This pacifist position coming at such a pivotal moment in history has ever since then also resounded with numerous artists, who discovered a role model in the spiritual leader of the nation.

Brian Rolfe mural in Cape Town depicting close-up of Tutu's face

Desmond Tutu was seen as a father figure to all South Africans, which has also been expressed in art

In fact, Desmond Tutu has also often been referred to as the "Father of the Rainbow Nation" — not just during many of his public appearances in Cape Town; this intimate moniker also adorns a striking piece of street art on Cape Town's Longmarket Street created by local artist Brian Rolfe, where his image is shown alongside similar portraits of Nelson and Winnie Mandela.

Deconstructing the visual language of oppression

If Mandela is considered the brains behind South Africa's transition to democracy, it wouldn't be far amiss to say that Archbishop Tutu provided the heart to that equation. Tutu lived by the Christian teaching of loving your neighbor as yourself — to the exclusion of absolutely no one at all. In 2013, for example, Tutu said: "I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say 'Sorry, I would much rather go to the other place.'"

Bronze statue of Desmond Tutu at Cape Town's waterfront complex

A flag at half-staff behind this statue of Tutu at Cape Town's waterfront encapsulates a nation in mourning

His passionate activism for minorities, especially for South Africa's LGBTQ+ community and for those living with HIV/AIDS, has earned him accolades not only on the international stage but also at home. Many South Africans — and especially artists — regard the former head of the Anglican Church in South Africa as a liberator, whose gentle nature helped change an entire culture both inwardly and outwardly.

Johannesburg skyline

Many South Africans say that in terms of design, Johannesburg is an 'ugly city with beautiful people'

By the time South Africa became a democracy in 1994, decades of austere conservatism under the white-minority apartheid rule had left the country with an overabundance of representational and brutalist ideas in visual arts and architecture, at a time when much of the rest of the world was following far more inclusive aesthetics in art. The sanctions that had been placed on the apartheid regime had meanwhile even further isolated the country from having access to seeing and knowing international trends, making entire cities look soulless.

Tutu played a fair role in helping South Africa with departing from that difficult heritage while opening the country up to contemporary currents and ideas — especially in terms of culture — by introducing South Africans to a new principle to follow: ubuntu.

Colorful image of Desmond Tutu in Malawian hospital with several patients in front

In Malawi, this mural of Desmond Tutu adorns the wall of a children's hospital in Blantyre

Transforming art through ubuntu

Tutu's core philosophy of ubuntu — a term used in the Zulu language to roughly describe the concept of "we're all in this together" — inspired some of the biggest names in South African art and culture to set their sails in a new direction.

Effigy of Desmond Tutu seen swinging from a chandelier at an art gallery in Cape Town in 2009

I want to swing from the chandelier: this 2009 art installation encapsulates Tutu's playful spirit

Abstract concepts in thought such as forgiveness, reconciliation and peace-building suddenly became the vanguards of the country's newly emerging creative scene. African designs suddenly mixed with European influences, creating new styles in fashion and music that prevail to this day. The language of the oppressive regime — Afrikaans — could suddenly be reclaimed and restored for the purpose of nation-building in music and literature.

After all the atrocities of apartheid had ended, ubuntu made South Africa the hippest place to be on the African continent for arts and culture, despite ongoing structural challenges still left over from the country's racist past.

This empowering and transforming spirit of ubuntu permeating every aspect of the human condition — and particularly arts and culture — was perhaps best encapsulated by the late Archbishop himself during an awards-ceremony held in London in 2013: "God longs for us to know that we were created for togetherness."

Watch video 01:11

For many South Africans, Tutu's legacy will live on

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