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Art Goes Across Cultures in “Tribute to Mandela”

by Sheron Long on August 15, 2013

How is it that a Belgian emerging artist, working with Chinese seals, honors South African activist and former President Nelson Mandela with a monumental portrait in the streets of Shanghai?

The inspiration that comes from going across cultures is, at least, part of the answer. In this video, seal artist Phil Akashi, shows his creative process.

If the video does not play, watch it here

Mandela,  An International Hero

Nelson Mandela (1918– ) celebrated his 95th birthday on July 18, 2013.

Nelson Mandela, subject of Phil Akashi's "Tribute to Mandela," a portrait created with Chinese seals and illustrating the art of going across cultures

Nelson Mandela, 2008
© South Africa The Good News

His vision of equal rights for the citizens of South Africa led to resistance against apartheid policies and to his imprisonment for 27 years.

After his 1990 release, he and President FW de Klerk negotiated an end to apartheid for which they won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

At age 77, Mandela voted for the first time in the 1994 elections, in which he became South Africa’s first democratically elected President.

According to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory:

“Nelson Mandela never wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and learning. Despite terrible provocation, he never answered racism with racism. His life has been an inspiration to all who are oppressed and deprived, to all who are opposed to oppression and deprivation.”

Phil Akashi’s “Tribute to Mandela” 

Phil Akashi, also known as the seal artist, uses East Asian seals as a medium for his work.

Chinese seal, used in a move across cultures to create a portrait of Nelson Mandela

Chinese seal
© Phil Akashi

Seals are printing stamps, typically made of stone, whose impressions have been used for thousands of years as signatures in East Asia.

When Akashi saw that Nelson Mandela was in hospital, he decided to use his seal technique to create something monumental and unconventional to show his respect for this great man—in his words “an extraordinary artist of peace and freedom.”

To create the portrait, “Tribute to Mandela,” Akashi chose Chinese seals with the characters 自由  for “Freedom.” He attached the seals to a boxing glove and struck the wall 27,000 times, a number symbolic of the 27 years Mandela spent in prison.

Phil Akashi makes cultural connections by using a Chinese seal to create his "Tribute to Mandela"

For each artwork, Phil Akashi carefully chooses a seal to create a unique connection to his subject.
© Phil Akashi

His “Tribute to Mandela” developed from impressions of the seal dipped in black cinnabar paste, deliberately chosen by the artist to honor Mandela’s struggle against apartheid. By manually pressing the seals like pixels onto the wall, he arranged thousands of impressions into the unique portrait.

Detail in a portrait of Nelson Mandela, created with Chinese seals and showing cultural connections in art

Chinese characters for “Freedom” stamped in black created the image of Nelson Mandela.
© Phil Akashi

The monumental portrait resides appropriately on a wall in Shanghai Graffiti Park, where it is accessible to anyone who passes by.

Street portrait of Nelson Mandela, created with Chinese seals and illustrating the art of going across cultures

Phil Akashi in front of his street portrait of Mandela, surrounded by graffiti of other artists
© Phil Akashi

Inspired by Crossing Cultures

Phil Akashi (1978– ) grew up in Brussels, the multicultural capital of Europe, where he studied business administration. He also developed a deep curiosity for diversity and a passion for art. He says:

“Belgium is so small but it is a gold mine of creative talent, and it is so rich culturally. Beside this, when you live in a country you can cross in one hour, it’s easy to get in touch with other cultures. Thanks to these enriching experiences I became open-minded and eager to discover more about the world. Today, I am really proud to be Belgian, and I also feel like I am a citizen of the world. I love to bring diversity and cultures into my artwork.”

All this intensified during later years of living in several different cultures—Los Angeles, Madrid, and New Zealand. Of his time in New Zealand, Akashi says:

“Spending time trekking, fishing, farming, and surfing in this fantastic country was a revelation for me. I realized how important it was to do what I love and to get away as much as I can from the materialistic rat race. Since then I have done my best to create works of art with passion and sincerity. I really try to achieve significance and a positive message in my series.”

Like many people who experience “Oh, I see” moments when they go across cultures, Akashi made momentous changes that enriched his life.

—He switched from a career in business to a full-time career in art in 2010.

—While traveling through China in 2011, he fell in love with East Asian seals and introduced them as a medium in most of his artwork.

East Asian seals used in Phil Akashi's artwork that goes across cultures

East Asian seals: (L to R) Japanese hanko, Japanese inkan, bronze Korean seal
© Phil Akashi

—He moved to Shanghai where he now shares a studio with Chinese artists and creates fascinating works with seals, thereby sustaining an old tradition through his contemporary art.

—He has changed his name to a name that bridges East and West, keeping “Phil” to represent his European roots and adding Akashi for its Asian essence. Since he lives in China, he has also created a Chinese name “涛程” meaning “big wave journey,” and he intentionally reversed the two characters to make his Chinese name unique.

With his world view, Akashi was in a unique position to honor Mandela as the international hero that he is and to do so in a way that cuts across cultures. In Akashi’s words:

“Nelson Mandela . . . sacrificed his own freedom to fight for the freedom of others and therefore represents a fantastic source of inspiration for the entire world.” 


For more on Nelson Mandela:  Interactive timeline of Mandela’s life; image gallerydaily updates, including quotes and key events on Twitter.

For updates on Phil Akashi’s work, follow him on Facebook

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.


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