Icons revealed: Intimate portraits capture South Africa's most celebrated

Updated 1634 GMT (0034 HKT) September 11, 2015
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By Lauren Said-Moorhouse, for CNN

A stark look of contemplation is etched across Nelson Mandela's face. Holding up a simple, chaste hand mirror, the virtuous former South African president gazes quietly at his reflection. A gentle but indomitable power emanates from Mandela in what would become one of his final portraits, captured by internationally-celebrated photographer Adrian Steirn.

This is just one of the hauntingly beautiful yet innately complex portraits currently on display as part of the 21 ICONS series at the Museum of African Design (MOAD) in Johannesburg's vibrant Maboneng neighborhood.

Through a series of photographs and short films, 21 ICONS is an inclusive multimedia project offering a poignant insight into the lives of 21 celebrated South African personalities -- from Mandela and Desmond Tutu to Hugh Masekela and William Kentridge. Intended to commemorate 20 years of democracy in the country, the project has taken Steirn and his team a grueling seven years to complete. But the result is an impassioned audio-visual production designed to inspire future generations of what can be achieved by a single individual. CNN spoke to Steirn about the story behind some of these portraits.

Nelson Mandela

"It started with Mandela, there is no better place to start," Steirn explains. "Nelson Mandela was simply an independent thinker. And he convinced the collective that perhaps there is another way. We've had lots of independent thinkers and as a community, I really do feel South Africa is a community of independent thinkers."

One September day in 2011, the team made their way to Mandela's Qunu home on the Eastern Cape to meet the man who had become a global icon of freedom. Nerves were heightened, emotions bubbling just under the surface. Sensing the tension in the room, Madiba did what, according to Steirn, he knew best -- he started making jokes.

"He has an incredibly sharp mind, even towards the end, his mind was incredibly sharp. He's interested, he's fascinated, he's really tuned to emotions really well," he reveals.

"That was Mandela's gift: to make anyone feel more important than he was when they met him. But in that moment, you are sitting there with tears in your eyes, shaking his hand, he has the ability to make you feel like you have business being there."

To honor such an auspicious personality, Steirn wanted to capture the former leader in a way that he'd never been shot before. "The mirror was just literally this physical metaphor for reflection -- reflection on him, reflection on his life, us to reflect on what we've all achieved," he explains. "I wanted to have a strong message to reflect on him. He made mistakes. He did incredible things. He represents human potential."
Adrian Steirn/21 Icons
F.W. de Klerk

He was South Africa's last white leader. A poignant reminder of a decisive turning point in the nation's history, de Klerk would go on to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, sharing it with Nelson Mandela, for his efforts to end apartheid. Steirn explains that while his legacy remains polarizing, it was important for him to be featured in the 21 ICONS project.

"To the rest of the world, there was this public pressure on him and that time was just a representation of Apartheid government. To an English-speaking South African, he was 'where do we stand now?' To the black population, the colored population and the marginalized population: 'he oppressed us.' He was a man alone.

"He was an isolated man. What he did for his country -- he was not comfortable doing it, which is why I loved the pose. The lotus pose of peace and you can see he's not entirely comfortable doing it. But again, this is a reflection of what he went through," interprets Steirn.

He adds: "We all know he was on top of an Apartheid government that had executed, that had killed people, and continued to do so to destabilize the country for a couple years. Mandela's genius was bringing together a country so divided. I wanted to show a portrait of a man that -- whatever you think of that man personally -- that part of his life was all about trying to do the right thing for South Africa."
Adrian Steirn/21 Icons
Desmond Tutu

With a cheeky half smile, Desmond Tutu gazes amusingly toward the camera while a ballerina's tutu seemingly floats by magic to his right. For Steirn, the goal was to send a simple message to the world: "The world needs another Tutu."

During the portrait shoot, taken inside a Cape Town school hall, Steirn says that Tutu had the 21 ICONS team in stitches. "He had us all -- if you watch the film -- he had us in hysterics, he was hilarious. He was dancing. Just cruising around dancing next to the tutu."

He continues: "That's part of his MO [modus operandi], part of his platform is his humor. And I'm not a religious person but he really is the moral conscience of this country. Even what he's done recently. To have that objective thought, he has come out to speak his mind, won a Nobel Peace Prize and continues to be extraordinarily active about all sorts of subjects -- same-sex marriage, conservation, inequality."
Adrian Steirn/21 Icons
Nadine Gordimer

Described as "South Africa's grande dame of literature," Nadine Gordimer was a pioneering literary figure for the nation. The 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature-winner, who died Sunday aged 90, is best-known for her works, "A Guest of Honour" (1970), the Booker Prize-winning "The Conservationist" (1974) and "July's People" (1981).

In addition to her literary achievements, Gordimer leaves behind a legacy of activism as she tirelessly fought to highlight the plight faced by those subjected to the segregated system of white rule. Recalling the November 2011 shoot which took place at Gordimer's home in Parktown, Johannesburg, Steirn remembers the strong willed author fondly.

"She's highly intelligent and she's got no time to waste. She'll tell you she doesn't like having her photo taken. And that is honestly the most extraordinary photograph taken of her.

"She came out of and said my work is bigger than me, so we decided to play with that," he says.

With this in mind, the 21 ICONS team had enormous versions of her most prolific titles -- works that were banned in the country during the apartheid years -- built in Cape Town and flown up to her house. The result is a demure but authoritative portrait of a women who always wanted her work to speak for her.

Steirn adds: "It looks like Alice in Wonderland and she's a tiny little thing but she is very formidable. There's a woman with power."
Adrian Steirn/21 Icons
Hugh Masekela

"Masekela's never met you, but he'll come up to you, cuddle you, hold you, just make you feel comfortable. The story of that man's life is beyond extraordinary. Who he is, what he's done, what he's achieved -- who he's met from Marlon Brando to Mandela through to Ronald Reagan. You name them, that man has met them all."

To say Steirn is a fan of the legendary South African musician would be an understatement. Shooting Masekela at a public park near his home in Bryanston, Steirn wanted to represent the jazz aficionado in a way that many of his admirers would appreciate -- by playing on one of his greatest hits, "Grazing in the Grass."

"He was all for it, saying 'absolutely, sounds cool man.' Also there is a level of respect from a musician to another creative person," says Steirn. "Once he said yes, he respects the process, he's just a great person to be around."

He adds: "He's just completely comfortable with who he is at this point in his life -- young for his age, still has so much to give, and proudly African. All of things that I really respect."
Adrian Steirn/21 Icons
William Kentridge

"This was technically one of the most difficult portraits in the collection. It's one exposure and we flashed him moving about the room to get that exposure absolutely correct. But even though it was technically difficult, Kentridge himself was so enthused with the whole thing," the project's principal photographer says.

Steirn reveals that during the photo shoot, Kentridge -- one of South Africa's best-known artists -- completely fell in love with the technical process of constructing the shoot.

"The narrative behind the portrait was his multimedia and him being so much a part of his work. It took 15 to 20 minutes to get right. We had producers counting him around the room, getting the times right," expounds Steirn.
Adrian Steirn/21 Icons
Evelina Tshabalala

Steirn and his team are planning to repeat the project every year. They say that the current multimedia exhibition is just the first in a collection, rather than a solitary selection of brilliant people from the nation.

"One of the big things to come out of this whole project for me was that at the end of it, together we are better as a community," says Steirn. "And the other thing that I understood is the power of individual thought. All these people I had interviewed, and all these people I had photographed, one was a nurse, one was a golfer, one was a runner but every single person had applied thought to their endeavors, their lives and that's what made them special."

That runner he refers to is 48-year-old Evelina Tshabalala. The hugely successful marathon runner and mountaineer started running to school as a child while living in the Free State province. She would go on to compete in countless events as well as scale Mount Aconcagua and Mount Kilimanjaro.

But she's had more than her fair share of tragic circumstances. A life of hardship and obstacles, including the death of her father during a Christmas day assault and the loss of her second son Emmanuel who suffered from epilepsy -- all before being diagnosed HIV positive in 1999. Despite all of this, Steirn explains that Tshabalala's unwillingness to give up in the face of adversity and keep moving forward became the narrative for her particular portrait shoot.

"It's a double exposure, so it's the same image taken on the same," says the 21 ICONS founder.

Elaborating further on the technical process of setting up the shot, he adds: "It's two frames on the same image. So in the old school days you wouldn't have rolled the film. You would just take the photo again. This and Kentridge are the two most technically difficult portraits by far.

"But the concept behind it was here's a woman that despite all adversity, keeps moving forward. [She's] one of the most beautiful, positive people I've ever met in my life."
Adrian Steirn/21 Icons
Kumi Naidoo

After a childhood in apartheid South Africa, Kumi Naidoo's has previously revealed to CNN that he was born into activism. Today he's the climate change champion who now heads up the world's most well-known environmental activist network, Greenpeace.

Steirn explains: "The portrait was about a man about who would always, no matter where he was, no matter what it was about, would stand up for what he thought was right. So I wanted to take a photo that reflected him, forget about Greenpeace, it's a representation about a man who would do whatever it takes to stand up for what he believes in."

While dragging a zodiac into the middle of the Newlands Greenbelt to shoot a portrait might seem bizarre or absurd, Steirn says Naidoo fully understood the proposed portrait's metaphor and reveled in the concept of the shoot.

"He's a man who will see a cause and think 'that's wrong, that's right and I need to act' and so the portrait became a reflection of that. A man who would take a rubber ducky into a forest if he thought that was the right thing to do, or would have an effect. and that's what we got to."

It's an impressive and ambitious starting point for the 21 ICONS team who have been overwhelmed with the positive response from across the globe. But for Steirn, the hope is that the project will offer an alternative narrative of a nation, providing inspiration in the eyes of the beholder.

"South Africa isn't about inequality, it's one of the happiest countries on the planet," Steirn says. "I just want people to realize that South Africa has something to offer, this South Africa right now, not South Africa that Mandela is from. The South Africa as you view those portraits, the 21 ICONS collections, is a reflection of a community that has a hell of a lot to offer."

Click here to view the full online presentation of 21 ICONS. The exhibition on display at MOAD will run until August 17, 2014.
Adrian Steirn/21 Icons