A piece of controversial artwork by the late boxing legend, Muhammad Ali, depicting South Africa, is part of a prestigious Bonhams auction taking place in New York on Tuesday 5 October.
The original painting (felt pen on paper) – titled ‘Let My People Go’ – includes a “white man whipping a black man”, and was unveiled on 13 April 1979 for the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid. However in official prints at the time, the white man was not included. Bonhams says “the United Nations decided that the depiction of the white man was too inflammatory. The white man was removed for the official release of the print and first day cover.”
The painting is Lot 53 and is estimated at a value of $40,000 – $60,000. A couple of rare artist’s silkscreen on paper proofs, created before the UN banned the original, are also in the auction.
The artwork, from one of the United States’ biggest sports icons, forms part of Bonhams’ “TCM Presents… It’s A Knockout!” auction next week. This is the first time a collection of rare and original paintings, drawings, and sketches by “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali, will be auctioned. The collection belongs to Ali’s mentor and gallerist Rodney Hilton Brown.
Hilton Brown says the painting – which also features a pile of gold bars in SA and a few pyramids and the Sphynx in Egypt – was painted, signed and dated by Ali on 12 April 1979, when he visited Hilton Brown at his home in New York City.
Hilton Brown says: “Let My People Go illustrates Ali’s support of the United Nations’ efforts to free Blacks in South Africa, especially Namibia, from apartheid.” At the time Namibia was under South African control, and called South West Africa. Nine years later, in 1988, the UN finally managed to broker a peace initiative in which the SA government agreed to give up control of the country. In March 1990 Namibia officially became independent.
Ali, who died in 2016, was a goodwill ambassador to the UN and recited the following poem along with the artwork at the unveiling: “Spread the word around the world, Tell both friend and foe, I’m fighting for freedom for South Africa, So, Let my people go.”
The framed picture is being sold along with a colour photograph of Ali and Hilton Brown with the artwork, at the UN in 1979.
In May this year, Hilton Brown published ‘Muhammad Ali – The Untold Story: Painter, Poet & Prophet (Untold Stories)’. Part III of the book is devoted to “Ali’s work for peace and racial justice in South Africa, his hostage rescue missions and his many diplomatic ventures around the world”.
Bonhams says that Ali’s love of art was nurtured by his dad Cassius Clay Sr, who was a professional artist. Ali’s work contains “those subjects closest to his heart: boxing, civil rights, world peace and humanitarianism”, says Bonhams.
One of the most quintessential items in the auction is ‘Sting Like A Bee’, created by Ali in 1978 and featuring a knocked-out opponent saying “Ref, he did float like a butterfly and sting like a bee!”
Boxing gloves worn by Ali are also featured in the auction.
View the Bonhams auction items here.