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UN's 'World Mandela' Sculpture: Bringing A World Together - 2002-03-05

The United Nations Headquarters in New York is now home to an unusual and ambitious work of art - a sculpture that tries to bring the nations of the world together.

Neil Tetkowski has done something unique, he has thrust his hands into the soil of 188 different countries, all at the same time.

Mr. Tetkowski is not a character out of some strange novel. He is an artist, and 18 months ago he was struck by the idea of gathering clay from every country represented at the United Nations, mixing them together, and then creating a sculpture from it.

"I thought to myself, 'What would happen if you took the earth of two countries that had been warring for generations, and you blended it together?' I thought, Is that an interesting idea? Would it provoke people to think? Would it upset people? Might it even inspire them to have a more progressive way of looking at themselves," he asked.

Gathering soil from almost 200 nations proved to be a formidable task, so Mr. Tetkowski took his idea to the United Nations. There, he found immediate interest and support, specifically from the Sustainable Development Division, which implements development strategies that protect natural and human resources.

"Sustainable development is concerned with a kind of holistic approach to economic, social, and environmental issues," said Lowell Flanders, Assistant Director of the division. "The idea of the Mandela, of bringing in soil samples from all different countries in the world, was something that was really attractive, so we signed on to help Neil almost immediately."

And now, Mr. Tetkowski's sculpture, called the World Mandala Monument, stands in the lobby of the U.N. headquarters. It is a large, circular object about 2.5 meters in diameter, imbedded with 188 tiny, colorful tablets of clay. Each wedge represents a country, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. The center of the piece features the handprint of a 100-year-old woman, which itself contains the handprint of a one-year-old boy. The artist hopes the symbolism of the sculpture will not be lost on the viewer.

"Cultural elements that inspired people to hold together don't really work the same way on a global scale," said Mr. Tetkowski. "And so this sculpture is 'available' because it's something that transcends language, religion, and it should transcend politics as well. And so if people can see themselves as inter-connected, then indeed we are living as unified."

But even for a man with the whole world in his hands, total unity can be elusive. Mr. Tetkowski pointed out with some chagrin that he had missed one country: Tuvalu. The South Pacific nation joined the U.N. after the "World Mandela" sculpture was complete.