A riot of colour, striking images and a hushed, almost reverent, atmosphere greet visitors to the venues in the many countries where 95 posters, constituting the collection created for the Mandela Poster Project (MPP), are exhibited. The selected posters represent a broad demographic spanning from all parts of the world and more importantly, a mix of voices ranging from high-profile international designers to students. The 95 Collection would have been exhibited at more than 35 venues in 12 countries by November 2015.
This article is the third in a series about key aspects of the inspired initiative, the MPP. The first two published articles are available at Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela – honouring an icon through an innovative poster project – telling the story of birth of the project and its planning and implementation, and Mandela Poster Project: Part II – assessing the MPP as a design-focused social entrepreneurship project.
The article is also the first opportunity for a select few of the participating designers in the 95 Collection to have their voices heard directly and not to only let their posters speak for them. They share their reasons for choosing to become part of the MPP and the specific inspiration which led them to create their posters in honour of this son of Africa. It also focuses on ‘Mandela as icon’ and his ‘iconisation’ through, in this case, the process and outcome embodied in the 95 Collection.
Background to the Mandela Poster Project
The MPP was created by the international design community to celebrate the 95th birthday – on 18 July 2013 – of Nelson Mandela, democratic South Africa’s first black president. The MPP also served as fundraiser towards fulfilling the final legacy wish of the man fondly known as Madiba: the establishment of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in Johannesburg which is set to open its doors in 2016.
From the original submission pool of more than 700, the final 95 posters selected to form the official 95 Collection include the works of designers from 37 countries, with the number, 95, representing Mandela’s age on his birthday in 2013.
Designers creating 95 images of ‘Madiba magic’
The 10 themes, which form the curatorial structure for exhibitions of the 95 Collection, are: portraits of Mandela; Mandela the boxer; birds as symbols of freedom; cages, jail bars and hearts; Mandela, son of Africa; hands and fists as symbols of solidarity and struggle; the many names of Mandela; Mandela’s life in words and images; Mandela’s values; and rainbows. In each instance, graphic representations are used to elaborate on the semantics entailed in the terminology: icon (the signifier or messenger/symbol/metaphor), iconised (the signified or subject/topic/brand), and iconisation (the signification process or messages that the iconised represents). In the process of unravelling the complex semantics, one is also able to take a peek into the almost ‘magical world’ of how communication designers think and apply their craft, and how they weave complex narratives similar to that of novelists, poets, music composers, movie directors and the like. The only difference is that communication designers’ final solution – in this instance posters – are required to connect with an audience in a mere few seconds and then inspire further engagement. The posters included in the 95 Collection surely do that and on each viewing delivers an enriched experience by allowing viewers to discover inspiring secondary narratives, surprising hidden stories and elements not noticed initially.
Portraits of Mandela
Almost half of the posters in the 95 Collection feature portraits of Mandela as a main theme (signifier), but this is only relevant at first glance. On second glance, the multi-layered subtexts start emerging and the iconised (signified) starts to reveal itself. Seven of these posters are highlighted here.
The poster by Rafiq Elmansy from Egypt reflects Mandela as an icon of the struggle for freedom and cleverly makes use of Arabic calligraphy to reflect the deep connection between Mandela and the concept of freedom. The image visualises the face of Mandela through words quoted from an Arabic poem by Nezar Qabani, titled, ’I married you freedom’. Elmansy says, “The unity between the Arabic letters are meant to reflect the unity in [Mandela’s] life, and the black and white [colour palette] have been chosen to reflect his struggle in the African continent.”
From Brazil, Marcelo Aflalo’s submission adds a great element of humour and satire to the 95 Collection. His solution references a famous poster of Bob Dylan designed by Milton Glaser in the 1970s which shows, as Aflalo calls it: ‘tangled hair’. The Aflalo poster, however, adds an interesting new dimension to the concept of Glaser’s by using well-known quotes by Mandela to fashion his hairdo. This created an interesting image of Mandela’s face in profile with wiry grey hair. Aflalo says, “Mandela was certainly the most relevant person during my lifetime and… what he represents now is much bigger than the person who he was. His quotes fly across the web and do not belong to him anymore.”
Martin Joel from Botswana ingeniously built his graphic representation of Mandela’s face through a series of letters that, if one looks carefully, spell out: “Long walk to freedom”. Joel’s poster is an interpretation of Madiba’s life-long journey and relates to his quest to liberate South Africa.
Joel says, “The varied circles represent a sequence of steps, from his birth, childhood, through the struggle and prison time until being the first democratically elected president of the Republic. The circles also vary in size and thickness because some steps or choices were good, some hurtful, so it was an up and down progression, but eventually making up this image (which you might miss if you looked only at individual steps); a great story of success, which lights up one’s face… even Madiba’s.”
Joel further states, “This Collection of posters is rich and captivating and, like a human body, has many parts that work together to make a person alive and moving; every piece plays an important role in building the story.”
Najeeb Mahmood from India portrays Mandela’s portrait through the elegant use of a layered narrative with the overlaid letters in vivid colours reflecting the words: ‘Man. Mandela. Madiba.’ Says Mahmood, “Like for Gandhi, we revere Mandela as a man who fought for a nation’s freedom, and the rights of its people, in a peaceful way. Mandela stood for freedom, racial equality and forgiveness.”
From the USA, Roy Villalobos created an intriguing depiction of Mandela’s head with a strong sub-narrative of compassion, showing that the heart can replace the brain. The poster features the iconic words of Mandela: ‘A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.’
Villalobos participated in the MPP as he finds it meaningful to participate and collaborate in projects with social and cultural purposes: “In this case, creating a poster of Nelson Mandela where I could reflect more than his figure; it was a challenge reflecting his spirit and ideology.” He views Mandela as “a human being who by his example made it clear that freedom in life is within ourselves; our prejudices, racial, social and cultural differences create those barriers that keep us prisoners believing to be free.”
From Mandela’s hinterland comes a uniquely homespun contribution by Gareth Steele. He explains: “My poster is titled ’Nelson Mandela – 100% Moral Fibre’ – and the concept originates from the brilliant shirts that he would often wear. I wanted to create a tapestry of mixed South African textiles, and use them as a metaphor for a new South African ‘patchwork’ culture he helped stitch together. The small fabric tag in the top right hand corner displays [seemingly obscure] washing instruction icons that I remixed to read ‘equality’, ‘peace’, ‘love’ and ‘mutual respect’ – values that I think Mandela upheld to his best ability. The poster is also somewhat illusory, in that if you stand very close to it, the details of his face disappear and the patterns take over and you are forced to consider the contents. The relationship between the ‘big picture’ and the small things that create the whole are hopefully a way of questioning your role in your country’s betterment, however minor you may feel sometimes.”
In 2004, Nelson Mandela’s trip to the Caribbean country of Trinidad and Tobago was the last official overseas visit he undertook. And his words to its youth were: “I am here because I love you very much and although it is not easy to love an old man like myself, I nevertheless thought I should come and urge you to love.” These are the words integrated into the poster designed by volunteers of the youth league of a political party in that country, Congress of the People (COP), which also shows Madiba’s face superimposed on “a beautiful silhouette of the steelpan, our country’s national instrument.”
Mandela the boxer
Over and above his political engagement, Mandela’s prowess as a boxer formed part of the mystery and intrigue that surrounded his identity in his early years. He loved boxing and long-distance running and, even during his imprisonment, maintained a stringent physical-fitness routine. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela describes his interest in boxing: “I did not enjoy the violence of boxing so much as the science of it. I was intrigued by how one moved one’s body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy both to attack and retreat, how one paced oneself over a match.”
It is no surprise then that some designers chose this facet of his life as inspiration for their posters. Sindiso Nyoni from Zimbabwe says, “My submission, entitled ’The Boxer’, is a depiction of a young Nelson Mandela and is inspired by the critically acclaimed Spike Lee film, ’Do the right thing.’ The piece particularly pays homage to one of the iconic characters in the film, Radio Raheem, whose story about life and how love (uthando) defeated hate echoes Mandela’s philosophy on human rights, forgiveness and reconciliation which contributed to the abolition of apartheid in South Africa.” It is interesting to note that Nyoni juxtaposed the two sets of words appearing in the poster (‘Uthando’ and ‘Fight the power’) to express two key characteristics linked to Mandela: initially, the importance of first pursuing, and attaining, power and secondly, the outpouring of his love and humanity.
Birds as symbols of freedom
Over the ages, images of birds have been used to convey messages of power, peace, liberty and moral agency in all cultures. And this is no different regarding the posters submitted for the MPP since many designers incorporated birds as signifiers of Mandela’s value system and his life’s journey.
To Carlos Andrade of Venezuela, Mandela stood for freedom, fight, humility and humanity and as an icon for humanity. The message Andrade conveys through his poster is a positive one of peace and humanity and this is exactly what he achieves – a beautiful and evocative depiction of the face of a gently smiling Mandela with a large flock of birds fluttering freely around him. In retrospect, this image can be interpreted as Mandela looking back on his life’s work as an champion of justice and his ultimate transformation to achieve moral agency.
Among the many arresting posters featuring birds is that of Ana Ivette Valenzuela from Mexico which features a shimmering black bird soaring from the confines of prison bars, as well as the confines of the poster’s own edges. White doves are commonly used as iconoraphy of peace and liberation in western culture, but in this instance Valenzuela uses a shimmering black dove as a signifier and thereby acknowledging alternative cultural, socio-political and geopolitical references: Nelson Mandela as an alternative (African and positively black) symbol of liberty.
Cages, jail bars and hearts
The desolate symbols of imprisonment such as cages and jail bars were popular choices for designers contributing to the MPP but the uplifting use of hearts, to signify the love for Madiba, also featured.
Onica Lekuntwane from Botswana participated in the MPP to show her support and gratitude towards Madiba and South Africa, in the best way she knew how. Says Lekuntwane, ”At the time of the call for submissions, RRE (an endearing form of address used by people of Tswana origin, loosely translated to mean ‘father’) Nelson Mandela was reportedly not well. I had recently relocated to my native country, Botswana, after 15 years of living peacefully in the multi-cultural city of Johannesburg in South Africa.”
Lekuntwane’s describes her vibrant poster of Mandela: “In the poster, his arms bend the cold unforgiving steel bars of the jail cell into a heart-shaped ‘M’ illuminating the darkness – a testament to his emotional strength, courage and unwavering love for all. The Nelson Mandela quote I chose: ’I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it’ remains one of my motivational quotes to this day.” She also says, “When designing the poster, I remember looking up the definition of ‘icon’ because I had come to see RRE Nelson Mandela as a father figure, a virtuous leader and international role model – all of which were ultimately summed up by the word ‘icon’.”
The eye-catching poster from a Mexican designer, Alexis Tapia, shows a bird cage on a yellow background with a map of Africa forming the cage’s gate and features the words: ’Let freedom reign. The sun never set on so glorious a human achievement.’ For Tapia, “Mandela was a living legend. He’s a role model for all of mankind and a pop culture icon. Madiba was an important person who fought against racism, an important activist for human rights in the entire world from whom we must learn. We need more people like him.”
Mandela, son of Africa
Madiba was a man from the soil of Africa and that is the image which several designers elected to capture in their posters.
Greek designer, Charis Tsevis says that as an icon, Mandela represents “idealism, courage, purity of vision, strength of character, altruism.” In designing his poster, Tsevis “wanted to express the idea of African unity. But I am using Africa as a wider symbol of earth, fertility, humankind. I have tried to create a composition where the parts create a whole that is much bigger and brighter than the simple sum of these parts. I hope I am contributing some ideas about the bidirectional relationship between the parts and the whole, the elements and the idea, the people and the leader.” Tsevis’ insightful grasp of these elements led to a powerful image of what he calls, New African Map, building up Mandela’s face in a mosaic pattern made up of a reconfigured African map and further illustrated by adding the words, ’I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself.’
Tsevis sees Mandela as a symbol of liberty and says, “This is probably the biggest ideal in life and it is as valid for my country, Greece, as for any other country on earth. I have visited South Africa and I have fallen in love with the land and the people – and even married a South African girl. It’s not just a rainbow nation, it’s a country that, because of Nelson Mandela, will always be the symbol of the eternal battle for justice, unity and humanistic values.”
For Lavanya Asthana from India, her motivation to participate in the MPP was to be part of the creative international initiative but mainly her reward for submitting a poster is that she wanted to be part of a project that was contributing funds towards the establishment of the Children’s Hospital.
Asthana conceptualised her poster based on her thinking that “Africa is about Nelson Mandela. His smile is the [continent’s] smile.” Her loving but powerful black and white image shows the reassuringly smiling face of Mandela on a map of Africa and captures his words ’Appearances matter – and remember to smile’. As an icon, Mandela represents “a rare quality – selflessness. He was a fearless activist. He fought against inequality. Racism and poverty also emerge from inequality. India is a country where so many races, regions, religions and cultures co-exist; and inequality also co-exists. India looks up to an inspiring and revolutionary champion like Mandela.”
Hands and fists as symbols of solidarity and struggle
Solidarity and struggle are key tenets underpinning what Mandela stood for and hands and fists are often used as signifiers of these key elements. And, hands can also symbolize giving, gestures of forgiveness and expressing gratitude.
Claudia Tello from Mexico elected to participate in the MPP “because I have a big admiration for Mandela; his life is a lesson of perseverance, hope, honour and strength.” The creative stimulus for Tello’s poster came from her wish to “express my big gratitude for giving just the best he can, for being ethical, for being an inspiration and for being so human and with such auto control.”
Tello is a working mother who had to fit time in between work and looking after her child and did the first sketch of the poster while waiting for her son to finish his Math class. This sketch turned into a stunningly humble image featuring a flower with hands and hearts, and the words ‘Thank you Mandela’, of which she says, “It’s just the flower I always want to give him with all my admiration, thankfulness and respect.”
From the USA, Jimmy Ball wanted to approach his poster from the specific angle of portraying Mandela’s name as a statement of power. “Power to lead. Power to fight. Power to persevere. At first glance it’s a left hand facing you, but like a true leader, it’s intended to be his right hand, as seen from behind, as he leads the way. The colours are bold; where it overlaps it is stronger – clear and sharp in the darkness.”
Ball views Mandela as being an icon as he says: “In today’s world, there is a depressing scarcity of individuals to put forth as role models; self serving politicians, greedy athletes, shallow pop stars – there are notable exceptions, to be sure… but how many can say ’I freed my people? I ended apartheid? I lead my country to equality? One individual can say that. One individual did that. One individual can change the world. That’s what Nelson Mandela means to me.”
The many names of Mandela
Nelson Rohlihlahla Mandela has been called many contradictory names: saint and sinner, saviour and sell-out. Also names of admiration and respect, such as Madiba (his clan name), Tata (father), Khulu (grandfather), freedom fighter, activist, president, icon and some names lesser known and sometimes less benign in nature, such as the Black Pimpernel (due to his ability to elude apartheid police) and terrorist.
Marian Bantjes from Canada says, “Nelson Mandela was an icon of triumph over suffering, and of equality and justice. He was most definitely one of the great men of the 20th century. For my poster I first had in mind a play on the words ‘Mandela / Mandala’. Upon researching Thembu art [Mandela was from Thembu descent on his mother’s side], I found black and white patterns of lines, which I emulated in the piece. Together, the art and the mandala was meant to reference Mandela’s personal roots and his subsequent universal symbolism.”
To Frida Larios from Honduras and El Salvador, Mandela is “the icon of icons and one of the world’s most outstanding symbols of freedom.” She explains her intriguing choice of image for her poster titled ’Underworld serpent’: “In the poster, a Mayan monster/serpent emerges from the darkness, a mythological emblem during the ancestral indigenous rituals in Mesoamerica and also, some African and other beliefs. The graphic monster with its open mouth and fangs, serve as a portal to the spiritual world of the dead ancestors who passed away during apartheid. Inside, a blue sky and seagulls represent freedom, and its tongue and rainbow colours reference Mandela’s (and other activists’) triumph in abolishing racial inequality systems and their inhumanity.”
Larios’ poster is overlayed with the name ‘Madiba’ which is set in a custom-designed font inspired by ancestral Mayan graphic language. The idea was for the poster to somehow provide a link and representation among the 95 posters; and to make it part of Central America (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize) and Mexico’s hieroglyphic language.
Mandela’s life in words and images
Much has been written about Mandela’s life and his image has been captured in countless creative mediums, such as statues, paintings and T-shirts. The MPP is however the first initiative to comprehensively portray him in poster format.
Elizabeth Resnick from the USA created an impressive poster in black and white capturing a powerful message which Mandela gave to the world. Resnick sees him as “a man who represented integrity and fairness in the face of unspeakable oppression.” She says, “Nelson Mandela contributed so many meaningful statements of moral fibre, love, values and just common sense. His quotes are well documented. I chose a quote that was, in a way an oxymoron – that good can ultimately triumph over evil. It is a hopeful statement: ’In my country, we go to prison first, and then become President.’ He wanted a South African government that was democratic and fair, for the people by the people. Not unlike the desire of all Americans, however flawed we might be.”
Australian designer, Russell Kennedy, responds, “I guess my poster was a bit different to most in that it uses a design industry-specific metaphor to highlight Mandela’s use of process and design to facilitate change. I used a Process Black, Pantone® colour swatch as a visual allegory of both elements and, in doing so, I wanted to acknowledge his global contribution to humanity but also to the profession of communication design.” His poster attempts to make three statements: Mandela’s process for political and social change; his understanding of design (he understood his iconic symbolic value and had a broad appreciation of design and the power of symbols to realign and authenticate South Africa’s national identity through i.e. the national flag and state symbols); to simply wish him a happy 95th birthday and to acknowledge his contribution to communication design.
Kennedy says, “Mandela represents the power of an individual to overcome the adversity of a collective. He also represents an example of how we have the ability to undo some wrongs of the past. We are too often content to blame the actions of previous generations without doing anything to change the situation as it stands. Mandela showed us that change can occur… and that if it is right and it is good, then change can happen.”
The values that Madiba stood for run like a golden thread through the 95 Collection. In the interviews for this article, the designers repeatedly referred to the values espoused by Mandela, such as: freedom, equality, unity, peace, forgiveness, co-existence, dignity, patience and wisdom.
The poster by Cristina Chiappini from Italy used one of Madiba’s well-know sayings as inspiration. At first glance the poster might seem like just a pretty typographic treatment of a famous quote but when one looks closer you discover a multifaceted narrative – almost every letter has a symbolic meaning.
Chiappini states, “I wanted to represent him through his ideas, citing a phrase of him on education and the change it can have on the world: ’Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’ My intent was to translate his thoughts into icons; a poster targeting especially the youth, who is attracted by images, pictures and signs, and who care less about history and are very attracted by myths, without necessarily understanding the reasons.” She says, “Mandela is for me a source of inspiration and freedom transcending geographical boundaries, across time and space. A rare symbol of revolution, perseverance and patience.”
Ellen Shapiro from the USA says she chose to study Mandela’s life story and use the poster format as a historical timeline of his most significant accomplishments. Shapiro states, “A man who was born in a rural village, charged with conspiracy to overthrow the government, convicted of sabotage, and sentenced to life imprisonment, 30 years later became his country’s first democratically elected president and presided over the transition from apartheid state to multicultural democracy. I hope that more Americans, especially African-American youth, will learn this story and feel the possibilities for themselves in their bones.”
The poster submitted by Onur Kuran from Turkey reflects a multi-layered narrative that incorporates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For Kuran, graphic design means ’awareness’ and ‘activism’. He says, “Nelson Mandela was one of the finest activists in the world. He represents both me and anyone who thinks like me. The Declaration consists of thirty articles which have been elaborated upon in subsequent international treaties, regional human rights instruments, national constitutions, and other laws. I thought: if this Declaration was a stone wall, Mandela would be one of the largest of those stones.”
South Africans often refer to themselves as belonging to ‘the rainbow nation.’ This term was coined by former Archbishop Desmond Tutu and alludes to the multi-cultural diversity of people living in the country. And it is this concept of a rainbow nation that a designer from South Africa, Celéste Burger, inter alias used as the creative spark for her poster.
Burger views Mandela as “the inspiration that our children will learn of, their children will aspire to, and we will share his story with our great grandchildren, generation after generation. For me, he represents grace and unison and is the luminary that mended the hearts of cynics, gave hope to the discouraged and inspired the spiritless.” Burger titled her poster, ’Before and After’ and says it stands as an inspiration for our future path. “The black and white bars in the upper part of the poster reflect the stark separation of how we viewed humanity before Nelson Mandela mended our nation into a field of colour, as depicted in the lower part of the image – our rainbow nation. Before, we were black or white. This also represents the prison bars that keep all of us locked in, closed off, and separated from each other. But after Nelson Mandela we all have a place to fit in. In reference to our rainbow nation, we blend from one consciousness into another.”
In conclusion: Mandela, the icon
Although it is recognised that not everybody world over would agree that Mandela was an icon and that some may actually view him as having been a terrorist, it is clear that the designers who participated in the MPP certainly see him as an icon and depicted their admiration and respect accordingly.
Amanda du Preez (Associate Professor in Visual Culture Studies, University of Pretoria, South Africa) wrote an exhibition review on the MPP, titled: Mandela: Mandela Poster Collective: Icon lost and regained. (Image & Text 21:140-149, 2013). She states, “Mandela’s iconic cultural capital probably dates back to the Rivonia Trial in 1964 (although his image was banned afterwards by the apartheid government) and was sealed as a globalised icon upon his release from prison in 1990. Mandela was iconised quite rapidly and globally thereafter.” She also says, “It must also be acknowledged that after Coca-Cola, Mandela has become the best known brand internationally. It means that Mandela/Madiba/Tata Mandela, or however South Africans prefer to refer to the great man, one cannot simply talk about the man without also implying the global icon that he has become.”
And Du Preez concludes: “95 posters to represent 95 years in the life of a global icon. We may just express the hope that in the cases where the man has been lost to the icon, or where the icon has been completely submerged in commercialisation, other iconic examples of re-signification and selfless politicisation may be gained. These posters form part of such a re-signification.”
Photo credit: Mandela Poster Project Collective