Nelson Mandela: Icon lost and regained

The work of three Art Center students was selected for the Mandela95 Poster Project

The work of three Art Center students was selected for the Mandela95 Poster Project

Today is Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday. To commemorate this momentous event, a group of South African designers formed the Mandela Poster Project Collective, whose mission was to collect 95 posters for inclusion in a traveling exhibition which would ultimately be auctioned by the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital Trust. After receiving over 700 submissions from designers around the world, yesterday the committee announced the final collection of 95 entries, which includes the work of three Art Center students — Zarina Mendoza , David Iker Sanchez and Jasveer Sidhu — who developed their contributions as part of a Designmatters and Graphic Design collaboration under the creative leadership of Leonard Konopelski. 

To further honor Mandela’s vast contributions to human rights, we’re republishing the following essay by Amanda du Preez, professor of visual arts at University of Pretoria, paying tribute to the former President of South Africa’s role as a cultural icon and nonviolent global changemaker. 

Freedom. Peace. Justice. Humanness. Africanness. Anti-Apartheid. Father of the Nation. Forgiveness. These are some of the terms used to describe Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. In the same breath 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. Mandela is a complex cultural icon, an international brand, but more importantly he is the frail old man who, at this time, fights for his life a few blocks from where I write this piece.

The rise of the popular cultural icon is one of the by-products of the increasing mediated and globalized world we live in. Whereas icons of old were endowed with metaphysical and religious allure, the new global icon or “re-auratized”[i] image spreads viral like by means of visual technologies and is more attuned to commercialization than any religious connotation. Derived from the Greek term eikon (image or portrait), icons “give tangible shape to intangible ideas”[ii] and as such can be viewed as express carriers of beliefs, myths and archetypes. Even though they differ in intent, both religious and secular icons provide meaningful clues to a specific world-view as they embody ideas honoured by a particular culture. Although icons has become shorthand for an idea, it would be a misjudgement however to interpret them as mere “signs” for they represent “deep-seated, significant messages … [that] impart magical powers for those who venerate the icon”.[iii] In Mandela’s case it is not difficult to grasp why he turned into an esteemed icon seeing that he acted as the magical bridge that consolidated democracy in South African.[iv] In fact, he is even suspected of possessing extraordinary powers or what is commonly referred to as the “Madiba magic” – usually denoting his charm, height and excellent memory.[v] 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 globalized icon upon his release from prison in 1990. Mandela was iconized quite rapidly and globally thereafter.

Iconization is a process whereby the original object or person’s appearance remains the same but is encoded with qualities that are not intrinsically part of it.[vi] Thus it is a process by which the object or person iconized (Mandela in this case) is stripped from a particular reference to history and all contradictions that may be contained in the image are eliminated. This indicates that the process of iconization “occurs in the continuous present, so that icons can be appropriated to many kinds of discursive (re-) engineering”.[vii] The icon is therefore an enduring symbol that can “accommodate shifts and reversals in meaning” and accordingly, Mandela can be considered as a “living sign”, whose iconic status is far from being fixed.[viii] However, recent events suggest that the commercialization of the Mandela icon into a powerful brand sold through merchandise ranging from soft toys, a range of clothing LWTF (Long Walk to Freedom), the House of Mandela wine range and even a reality TV show (“Being Mandela”) may just leave the last unfortunate imprint on the process of iconization of this legendary figure.

It is not only commoditization that threatens the integrity of the popular icon but in the contemporary “liquid modern society of consumers”[ix] the drive towards becoming “ultimate surfaces” signifying nothing more than themselves, is perhaps the most lethal.[x] As mastered by the greatest iconographer of our time, Andy Warhol, epitomized in his work Gold Marilyn (1962), the popular icon becomes more an epitaph at the burial site of the real than a sign of revelation. Warhol’s fascination with Marilyn Monroe is, amongst other things, also an attempt to come to grips with the process by which “a real woman had effectively disappeared behind a screen of representation”.[xi] The icon has since been enmeshed with the cult of celebrity, which does not imply that all celebrities necessarily become icons.[xii] The state of contemporary iconolatry in the age of digital reproduction and endless consumption is foregrounded in debates on the legendary image of Ernesto Che Guevara as captured by the fashion photographer, Korda. Does Che’s iconic image still evoke radical politics in the face of pervasive commodification or has it become a nostalgic remnant that is now worn as radical chic?[xiii] This remains a critical issue also when considering Mandela’s visual heritage and the economic and political causes for which his iconic features are utilised. The 46664 project (Mandela’s prison number on Robben Island) started in 2002 as a global HIV/AIDS awareness campaign does however suggest that commodification does not necessarily equal de-politicization.[xiv]

What makes an icon recognizable or memorable? If iconic images “are endowed with a special presence, as if some quality of the original is embedded in them”,[xv] it means they are relational by nature and elicit responses from their audiences. It may even be suggested that they are “something like life-forms, driven by desire and appetites” and actually “want to be kissed”.[xvi] They are simply irresistible. The memorability of icons also resides in visual elements such as symmetry and simplicity allowing the viewer to hone in one the key features or identifiers. Iconic images furthermore show a tremendous ability to be successfully reproduced: “however inadequately they are transmitted or however they are traduced during transmission”,[xvii] they remain recognizable and identifiable. They are accordingly images made to travel across different media and reproductive processes.

In the 95 poster icons selected here the icon “at work” can be seen. In those posters iconizing Mandela’s face, the features are reduced and simplified to bare essentials. In contrast to the Korda photograph of Che Guevara, there is not one image that dominates the field of representation, but rather a few images that keep cropping up e.g. Mandela with raised fist as he leaves prison, young Mandela with box gloves, profile images but mostly a broad generous face smiling. In cases where Madiba is associated with another sign, e.g. continent of Africa, both are unambiguously identifiable. One poster cleverly uses the icon of Africa to construct the iconic image of Mandela’s face, while another conjures the legend’s face from words such as liberty, freedom, hope and democracy. In many instances symbols such as the dove and broken prison bars are utilized to convey key ideas associated with Mandela such as peace, freedom, liberty and justice. One of the most fascinating examples is a poster wherein Madiba’s face appears in a broken fence. The colors used in most cases are bold green, blue, red and green echoing the South African national flag and Mandela’s links with the ANC. Madiba’s trademark shirts are also well represented, while there are also instances of the clever use of visual and verbal puns e.g. Mandela Mandala.

Entries come from Iran, Greece, the Netherlands, Italy, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, USA, Canada, South Korea, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, Israel, Colombia, Slovenia, United Kingdom, Honduras/El Salvador, France, China, Malaysia, Argentina, India, Belgium, Taiwan, Bolivia, Botswana, Cuba, Egypt, Australia, Zimbabwe, Germany, Bahrain, Slovenia and naturally South Africa.

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 commercialization, other iconic examples of re-signification and selfless politicization may be gained.

These posters form part of such a re-signification.


Poster competition honoring Nelson Mandela features designs by eight Art Center students

[i]   B. Ghosh, Global Icons: Apertures to the Popular (Duke University Press, 2011), 1.

[ii] J.G. Nachbar and K. Lausé, eds. Popular Culture: An Introductory Text (Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin   Press, 1992), 171.

[iii]                                 J.G. Nachbar and K. Lausé, eds. Popular Culture: An Introductory Text, 171.

[iv]                                The metaphor is apt if the Nelson Mandela Bridge in Braamfontein is considered as an example of a “living statue” resembling Mandela’s political role in South Africa.

[v]                                 E. Boehmer, Nelson Mandela. A Very Short History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 3.

[vi]                K.G. Tomaselli and D.H.T. Scott, Cultural Icons (Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press, 2009), 20.

[vii]                               K.G. Tomaselli and D.H.T. Scott, Cultural Icons, 20.

[viii]                              Ibid., 21.

[ix]                Z. Bauman, Liquid Life (Cambridge: Polity), 47.

[x]                                 K. Blatanis, Popular Culture Icons in Contemporary American Drama (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003), 11-12.

[xi]                                R. Adams, “Idol Curiosity: Andy Warhol and the Art of Secular Iconography,” Theology & Sexuality 10 no.2

(2004): 93

[xii]                               M. Kemp, Christ to Coke. How Image becomes Icon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 342.

[xiii]                              J.A. Larson and O. Lizardo, “Generations, Identities, and the Collective Memory of Che Guevara,” Sociological Forum 22 no. 4 (2007): 425.

[xiv]                             J.A. Larson and O. Lizardo, “Generations, Identities, and the Collective Memory of Che Guevara,” 450.

[xv]                              M. Kemp, Christ to Coke. How Image becomes Icon, 342.

[xvi]                             T. Mitchell, What do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 6, xvi.

[xvii]                            M. Kemp, Christ to Coke. How Image becomes Icon, 34.

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