21 Icons Launched at Love Books with Adrian Steirn and Gcina Mhlophe
21 Icons was launched at Love Books recently, with the man behind the concept, Adrian Steirn, and one of the icons, Gcina Mhlophe.
Steirn kicked off the launch with an anecdote. “When I was in Australia people kept asking me ‘What is going to happen when Mandela dies?’ This really annoyed me,” he said, “because they did not know the South Africa I know.” Steirn said he wanted to show the optimistic side of the country. “The reality of the South Africa I’ve experienced, the community I’ve been a part of, it’s been the most amazing experience.”
Five years ago Nikon sent Steirn a camera with video capability. “I became absolutely obsessed with multimedia,” Steirn said. “Now is the time to be a photographer.”
The 21 Icons project has 40 permanent members of staff on board, and the second season is well underway. The aim of the project is to depict a positive South Africa, “the narrative beyond one man, a robust community doing wonderful thing”. Steirn said South Africa has had many miracles, but along the way we need to see and acknowledge the people who build their communities together. “This is a project about shining a light on people you might never have heard of,” he said.
It took five years to complete the 21 Icons project and during that “surreal experience” Steirn spent time with Nelson Mandela, drank tea with Desmond Tutu and hung out with John Kani. “We have to live in the now – this is the most exciting place in the world.”
Steirn said, “The world is broken. This community has gone through hell and because of that has learned to live together. South Africa has a problem of inequality, not a problem of unhappiness.” The photographer said there is no other country in the world that would have allowed him to come and facilitate this project.
When Steirn first embarked on 21 Icons he thought, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to be in a room with these people?” He described the extreme joy he felt working with Mandela and said that FW de Klerk was the toughest nut to crack in an interview. He recalled a moment one afternoon when he asked De Klerk, “Is Nelson your friend?” De Klerk said, “No one has ever asked me, is Nelson my friend.” After a pause De Klerk looked up and said, “Yes, he is my friend.”
Through this project you get down to the most basics of who people are and what they mean to each other, Steirn said. “Not one of these people thought they were special.”
Steirn introduced one of the icons, Gcina Mhlophe, to the floor. Mhlophe has been a nurse, she’s driven a steam train and she has a dream of opening a memory house one day, to remember the ordinary people who make our lives a better place. She is also a storyteller, poet and a freedom fighter. She has written Have You Seen Zandile?, Love Child and Umcelo Nezindaba Zase-Afrika. Mhlophe started her presentation with a song and told a story about a dream she had a long time ago of music and stories. “There are many people who are long gone that have influenced me from beyond the grave,” she said. “Let’s take the lessons they’ve taught us.”
Mhlophe recalled when she was first asked to be part of 21 Icons. She said, “No, I can’t do this thing, there’s not enough time.” The 21 Icons team persevered and eventually she changed her mind. She asked, “What do you want me to do exactly?” After a while she realised the importance of the project and it has sparked a fire in her to tell stories about ordinary people who do amazing things.
“My great-grandmother couldn’t read or write but collected anything with words in it and put it in a suitcase. She called them her treasures, one day they would speak to her. Sadly she died before she could learn to read or write.” The family called her great-grandmother “Mother of Books” and Mhlophe one day decided to “wake up the suitcase”. This memory planted the seed that would eventually become her Nozincwadi Mother of Books literacy campaign.
Mhlophe said sharing her love of books with old and young has been a good experience, and now she has her sights set on building a memory house, “a round building with a full-time sound engineer where anyone can come and select a memory”. In this memory house she will tell the stories of those long forgotten. “There are so many different people who have so many stories to tell.”
The storyteller said there are many people who have been forgotten, who rest in unmarked graves and were left out of the history books. These people built houses, fed their families and led dignified lives. They are the people who deserve to be remembered. “When you build your own house, when you grow your own food – you’re a dignified person. When you nurture and feed your family – you’re somebody.”
- 21 Icons by Andy Ellis and Michael Hathorn, photography by Adrian Steirn
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