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Neves I & II

  • The word neves has been used among jailbirds for more than a century, to indicate a really long prison stretch - seven years at least ... and longer. The word is pronounced to rhyme with 'nevers' - indicating a period of time that borders on 'never-ever' limits - the Oxford English Dictionary says neves(occasionally spelled nevis) is actually seven years' hard labour and that it derives from the word sevenwritten backwards. Such a name, written backwards, is called an ananym - from the Greek ana 'back' and onouma 'name'.


    My pair of etchings entitled NEVES I and II were made to celebrate Nelson Mandela's 85th birthday in July 2003. In them I wrote the ananym neves - with the back-to-front etching process fortuitously printing it backwards, to look a little like the original seven, almost legible, but with some letters the wrong way around. In my work the lines of letters in the word neves are made up of tiny sentences of which most of the letters are in fact the wrong way around. One actually needs a mirror to read anything at all. The work is therefore a vague mirror, held up to acknowledge, in a small way, a great man's perplexing life. The text, done in micrography, so small it is hardly readable, and further complicated by the aid of a mirror, reflects on excerpts from Mr Mandela's famous 'I am Prepared to Die' speech, given from the dock when he was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Rivonia trial. Actually Nelson Mandela completed nearly four neves sentences before his release. He went into jail on 11 June 1964 and was only released on 11 February 1990, more than 27 years later. I have accordingly and unceremoniously scribbled the word neves four times in my pair of etchings.


    For some years now, my own four children, and Mr Mandela's grandchildren, attended the same school, Sacred Heart College in Observatory, Johannesburg, and we regularly see him at school plays and other functions. He surprised all of us with his lack of bitterness after his four neves sentences and with his astute and accommodating leadership. However, what impressed me most of all about him is that, in spite of staggering commitments of national and international dimension, in spite of (perhaps it is because of) the many years of life missed while he was in jail, he affords his rather naughty grandchildren the time and respect one might prudently bestow upon royalty, presidents and the like.

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