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Piedmont Park sculpture honors Nelson Mandela | Arts & Culture

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Piedmont Park sculpture honors Nelson Mandela
Piedmont Park sculpture honors Nelson Mandela

ATLANTA -- Even to Piedmont Park regulars, it's easy to overlook.

The giant rock with a metal Mohawk is actually the work of a famous artist, and it's been honoring Nelson Mandela in Atlanta for decades.

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The people who know the large sculpture exists probably don't know the official name for it. The title is "Nelson Mandela Must Be Free to Lead His People and South Africa to Peace and Prosperity." That long title is more often summed up with the three words etched in stone: "Free Nelson Mandela."

"The symbolism of the artwork really changed at that time and became more of a proclamation and a celebration of a Mandela that was finally free," said Robert Witherspoon with the Atlanta Public Art Program.

The sculpture was crafted in 1987 with prison bars painted in South Africa's colors. The metal door was locked because Mandela was in prison at the time. After his release, the gate opened.

Gladys Carter took a photo when she happened upon the sculpture. It was a chance discovery turned teaching moment for her summer campers. She told them about history, and gazed at a piece of public art in Atlanta as everlasting as Mandela's spirit.

"It brings attention to what he's done over his lifetime, and at this point and time I think that's important," Carter said.

The sculpture debuted during the 1987 Atlanta Arts Festival and resides near the Charles Allen Drive entrance to Piedmont Park. It's one of a half dozen public arts displays with civil rights ties in Atlanta. The city's Cultural Affairs Office offers free guided tours every Friday.