An Icon and his Iconic Images: Mandela’s 95th Birthday

Just two weeks ago, Nelson Mandela celebrated his 95th birthday, along with the rest of the world.  While Madiba, as South Africans lovingly and reverently call him, has faced a great deal of health problems this year and more recently after a long stay in the hospital with reports of his potentially critical condition, many have taken this time to celebrate and honor his long life of service, leadership, and most famously, his fight against apartheid. - Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor

All images courtesy of the Mandela Poster Project Collective

To help commemorate his birthday, a group of South African designers formed the Mandela Poster Project Collective to advertise a poster contest in Madiba’s honor.  In 60 days’ time, more than 700 posters were submitted by artists from over 70 countries worldwide.  Of these submissions, 95 works were chosen for a traveling exhibit, representing work from 37 countries. These will eventually be auctioned off to raise funds for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital Trust.  Because of the massive response, a book featuring the 95 winners, along with another 405 of the other submissions, is also in the works, with the proceeds benefitting the children’s fund as well.

The posters range in medium, content, style, and iconography…but all are inspired by Mandela’s image, message, spirit, and work.  Artists have called upon Mandela’s portrait, familiar features, and recognizable face in many of these posters.

As I’ve discussed before, for me, posters, graphic arts, visual culture, and ephemera are a constant source of inspiration and call for exploration. The same can be said for this massive exhibit, and it is only made more interesting by the use of iconic imagery of an icon such as Mandela himself. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an icon as “a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol of something,” and this has certainly been the case for Mandela.  Scattered throughout the exhibition, images of his face appear in many different forms and shapes throughout, having come to stand in for various inspirational feelings such as freedom, racial equality, hope, and perseverance – feelings which otherwise might be hard to depict or grasp until given a physical form.

Some historians have posited that the very act of becoming an icon may reduce the importance, specific history, or values of the figure depicted (think Che Guevara, Mahatma Ghandi, John Lennon, or even Shepard Fairey’s Obama “Hope” image used for the 2008 election).  While I agree that iconic images can loose or gain power and change meanings and associations over time (see Jeff A. Larson and Omar Lizardo’s work on Che Guevara’s image in the collective memory, for instance), I do not think that Mandela’s image is in this danger…yet.  In fact, I think it is more important than ever that his imagery, and in turn message, are repeated visually and remembered iconically at this point in time.

I teach a survey art history course that focuses on contemporary African art and as part of this course, we focus on artists who address apartheid and its aftermath.  Over the years I have come to realize that a growing majority of my students do not know what apartheid means, what it was, what its legacy is, how deeply rooted its effects still are, and that it even existed within many of our lifetimes.  It is for these students in particular, and future generations to come, that I am happy to see artists recalling and recasting Mandela’s face as an iconic image and emblem of our time, reminding the world of the struggle he and many endured to fight for freedoms and become a political and spiritual leader for many, both inside and outside of South Africa.


The 95 selected submissions comprising the Mandela Poster Project Collective will travel to several venues in South Africa and to other countries. Invitations to exhibit have already been received from Brazil, Mexico, the USA, and China.

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.


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