Portrait of a nation

WORDS Dylan Culhane PHOTOS Adrian Steirn / 21 Icons

The ongoing 21 Icons Global Project celebrates Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and 19 other iconic individuals who shaped South Africa.

“It always seems impossible until it is done.”
Nelson Mandela

These immortal words, succinctly encapsulating Madiba’s visionary leadership philosophy, apply with equal relevance to a seemingly impossible project initiated by photographer Adrian Steirn. What began as a bold, spur-of-the-moment proposition to Francois Pienaar in a coffee shop has snowballed into one of the most significant artistic projects in South Africa’s recent history.

The 21 Icons Global Project is an intimate personal chronicle and celebration of iconic South African men and women of the 21st century. It celebrates their influence and extraordinary impact on our society, be it in the scientific, artistic, educational, medical, political, sporting, business or musical fields.

These exquisite monochromatic portraits and accompanying videos can be regarded as historical documents, immortalising individuals who have reached the pinnacle of achievement in their fields of endeavor. At the same time, they serve to educate future generations about their defining role in shaping South Africa as we know it today.

Behind each portrait lies a carefully planned concept that captures the essence of each icon’s spirit and his or her legacy. “For example, with our first icon, Mandela, I wanted him to hold a mirror so that we could see a man reflecting on his life,” Steirn explains. “But because he is also holding up a mirror to each of us, his reflected image suggests that, as his fellow human beings, we all have the potential to embody Madiba’s values.”

Among a wide range of exceptional individuals Steirn has photographed around the world, Nelson Mandela is perhaps closest to his heart. The portrait of Madiba in the 21 Icons series is the final authorised portrait of the most revered statesman on the planet. It was Steirn’s admiration for what this particular icon had achieved in uniting the people of South Africa post-democracy that inspired him to create 21 Icons South Africa.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s insight during his shoot further underpins why Steirn wanted to pay tribute to such icons. “Why is it that we admire people like Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King more than, say, people who are military victors?” he asks. “The answer must be that it is because they are good.”

Steirn believed that this simple yet profound attribute could inspire others to become citizens and leaders of tomorrow.

“To get access to all these icons was very difficult and extraordinary,” Steirn continues. “But it happened because people started buying into the concept as they saw how honest, raw and well crafted the portraits and films were.”

Renowned South African artist William Kentridge might have identified the key to Steirn’s success in acquiring the consent of some of the country’s most inaccessible individuals: “He is able both to perceive unusual perspectives on his subjects and — vital for a portraitist — to convince his subject to participate in his exploration.”

The original photographs, signed by the icons, will be auctioned at the end of the series, and the proceeds donated to his or her chosen charity. Members of the public can also see the images exhibited at the Museum of African Design (MOAD) in Maboneng until 17 August. Alternatively, you can buy the book here.

The exhibition runs from June 16 to August 17.
Venue: MOAD, 281 Commissioner Street, Johannesburg, 2094.
Opening hours: 10am – 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday.