Thursday, 28 May 2015 19:15

21 Icons initiative

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The Black Swan, Kitty Phetla The Black Swan, Kitty Phetla All pictures by Adrian Steirn

The 21 ICONS South Africa initiative is a socially conscious movement which came about in 2009 when a group of young men and women in Cape Town became captivated with the human spirit in South Africa.

They set out to document and photograph the incredible men and women making a positive impact on their South African communities in the 21st century. The concept slowly grew from a living room idea to a global reality.

21 ICONS South Africa is a visual celebration of the lives of men and women who have shaped the world around them for the better. Inspired by the life of Nelson Mandela, it tells the stories of people who have continued his legacy – whose lives have made the world a better place. The project seeks to celebrate those who have achieved success and widespread recognition, as well as individuals whose work has been conducted without prior acclaim.

 A unique concept, the project combines fine-art portraits, short films, behind the scenes photography, written narrative and a feature length documentary. The hope was to capture in an immersive manner the lives of the people it features. This meant striving for intimacy during the portrait shoots and interviews, to ensure that the charm, humility and sincerity of South Africa’s most remarkable people came through.

The project has participated in engaging and inspiring a nation to be the next generation of leaders in South Africa.

 The project aims to mobilise young South Africans to emulate the example of these inspiring individuals, whose strong values and morals have allowed them to achieve greatness.

 This is where 21 ICONS South Africa has incredible potential to make a real difference as it focuses on the thinking that small achievements are good; but collectively they move humanity forward.

 It stems from a belief that leaders are not necessarily born to greatness, but that latent talent can be stimulated to develop further within the correct context.

 The 21 ICONS project provides an inspirational road map that gives South Africans the confidence to make a difference in their communities, secure in the knowledge that others, no different from themselves, have navigated this same path.

At the core of the 21 Icons project is the spirit of generosity represented by its icons – whose lives have been dedicated to bettering the world around them, and the ceaseless endeavour of giving back to their communities.

In order for the project to embody this, one of its key goals is the support of charitable organisations in South Africa whose work reflects that of the icons the project celebrates. In light of this, each icon’s portrait will be auctioned with the proceeds going to a charity of their choosing. To date, the sale of Nelson Mandela’s portrait alone has raised R2-million for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital and WWF South Africa.

The remaining portraits from Season I were auctioned together early this year (2015) at the 21 ICONS South Africa Charity Auction and Gala Dinner, which was hosted by the City of Tshwane and raised funds for charities nominated by each of the icons.

Icons who were part of the 21 ICONS South Africa project came together for a charitable cause and donated the proceeds from the fine art portraits to their own chosen charities. It was the largest photographic portrait portfolio representing a cross-section of our country’s iconic personalities by a single artist to be auctioned for charity within South Africa.

Amongst the esteemed guests including the auction host, executive mayor of Tshwane, Counsellor Kgosientso Ramokgopa, representatives from the Department of Arts and Culture, celebrities and well-known media personalities, the gathering of icons included: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, George Bizos, Kumi Naidoo, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, John Kani; Lilian Cingo, Peter Magubane and Helen Sebedi.

The portraits were from Season I which saw 21 South African icons photographed by Australian born lensman Adrian Steirn who captured the essence of his subjects with adroitly posed black and white portraits.

In 2014 21 ICONS South Africa launched a second season, following the success of the debut season, which had a global following of 130 million.

Season II followed the same guidelines with beautiful and compelling shots of personalities such as Albie Sachs, Pieter Dirk Uys, Herman Mashaba, Kitty Phetla, Lucas Radebe and many others.

The intellectual processes which went into each portrait were informed by that particular icon's life and belief system - and the results are arresting.

The screening of a documentary on Season II which appeared on SABC took place at the Rosebank Cinema Nouveau and several of the icons in the season attended.

Partners of the project include Mercedes-Benz, Deloitte, Nikon, Momentum Asset Management and the Department of Arts and Culture South Africa.

* text courtesy of as well as the initiative's press releases


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