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New York School Children Pay Tribute to Nelson Mandela

New York City school children are celebrating Black History Month with an exhibit of portraits of Nelson Mandela at the landmark Rockefeller Center. The show's centerpiece is a portrait of the former South African president by British artist Harold Riley. Mandela sat for the painting with the understanding that all proceeds would go toward children's art education in South Africa. Some New York kids benefited as well.

Hip hop impresario Russell Simmons and city officials unveiled the paintings of Nelson Mandela, but the real stars were the children. A total of 15 students, ranging in age from 5 to 18, were chosen from 200 entries to display their portraits. Quentin Williamston, 10, explained why South Africa's national hero inspired him.

"Back then in Africa, it was racist, and he tried to fight for his rights. So he got locked up. And he came out, and he turned out [to become] the president of South Africa," he said.

Quentin's painting depicts Mandela with hands folded, as though in prayer, against an orange background with blue dots.

"My motto is being different from everybody else, so I decided to add a lot of good things to it. Special things. Like the dots -- like first this was a mistake, but then I turned it into art," he added.

The only work by an adult on display is that of British portrait artist Harold Riley. Mandela agreed to be painted on the condition that the profits from the sale of the portrait go to a children's art charity. Riley said that while posing, Mandela spoke of his love of children, along with football. The brilliantly colored canvas shows Mandela in an armchair, gazing out on an African landscape. Riley described his work's symbolism.

"The sunset is the time of life of Mr. Mandela," he explained. "There is a pathway that crosses the landscape, then there is a gate, which closes the road symbolizing his imprisonment. It's reopened at the bottom of the picture. And finally there are books, for he was a learned man, and he sits in his favorite chair."

The portrait sold for one million dollars at an auction the evening before the show opened. Mr. Riley also donated a sketch that Mr. Mandela signed to the winners of the children's art competition, five students from a Brooklyn elementary school. The school's principal, Linda Nelson, could not conceal her pride.

"Even as I look at Harold Riley's painting compared to our children's painting, he's a wonderful artist, but as he has him in a pensive position, so have the children," she said. "You again see the pondering, the thinking and the listening. Each one seems to have captured that."

A few students portrayed other black heroes. Akeda Riley, 9, of the Harlem Day Charter School, painted Rosa Parks, a woman often credited with spurring the U.S. civil rights movement. She depicted the African-American heroine wearing a red and blue polka dot dress and a smile showing one gold tooth.

"I painted her as how I would imagine Rosa Parks as if I saw her," she explained. "I chose Rosa Parks, because she was arrested for nothing when she has a right to do whatever she wants, which was she had just sat on a bus."

For Jasmine Reed, 8, someone very close to home is her hero.

"My picture is the picture of my mother because she's really my hero because she's the one who puts food on my table and the clothes on my body so I just wanted to show her that I appreciate her."

A definition of hero that Nelson Mandela might well agree with.