The story of the Mandela Poster Project (MPP) is a remarkable one. It’s the story of honouring a visionary and international icon, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1918–2013), a man from the soil of Africa who became a legend in his own lifetime.
It’s also the story of an idea with humble beginnings, with its origins firmly embedded in the vision of two South African designers who wanted to honour this extraordinary man on his 95th birthday. It’s the story of an enterprising initiative that tapped straight into an international creative nerve, sparking an unprecedented worldwide response from the design community, and also receiving extensive coverage in national and international mainstream media. And it’s the story of a project that ensured a generous financial contribution was generated towards the fulfilment of the final legacy wish of Nelson Mandela.
Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years after being found guilty of sabotage in June 1964 in a South African court of law. He was freed on Sunday, 11 February 1990, and was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected, and black, president on 10 May 1994. Mandela also received the Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with Frederik Willem de Klerk, in 1993 for “their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa”.
He received many accolades during his lifetime, including the launch of Nelson Mandela International Day in 2009 by unanimous decision of the United Nations General Assembly to mark his birth date, 18 July. The UN subsequently declared in May 2015 that Nelson Mandela International Day will furthermore also be known as Mandela Prisoners’ Rights Day to raise awareness of the conditions in which prisoners are held.
The birth of the Mandela Poster Project
The idea for the project was conceived in 2013 by two South African designers, Mohammed Jogie and Jacques Lange, and further planned and implemented by the creative community, nationally and internationally (http://www.creativeweek.pro/ and https://www.facebook.com/MandelaPosterProject).
Jogie explains that MPP is “a design-led initiative, it has a very specific format and brief, and it has a very specific desired outcome.” The conceptual focus of MPP aimed to celebrate the life of Mandela and his contribution to humanity by collecting 95 exceptional and originally designed posters from around the world honouring his lasting contribution to humanity and celebrating his birthday on 18 July 2013. The number, 95, was to coincide with his age at the time. At the launch stage of the project Mandela, also fondly known as Madiba, was a frail but otherwise reasonably healthy and wise old man enjoying his retirement years. This, however, changed radically as the project unfolded.
Jogie says they chose posters as the medium for the project, as format lends itself to creativity and impact. “Posters are graphic, they catch a person’s attention in a short space of time. And they also carry the soul of the designer, and that comes through and comes forth in the works collected through the MPP.”
The project was also designed to serve as a fundraiser towards the establishment of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in Johannesburg, contributing towards realising the final legacy wish of Mandela, a vocal champion of children’s rights. The hospital is currently under construction near the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, in the grounds of the Wits University School of Education. It will be one of only five dedicated paediatric hospitals on the African content and plans are on track to open its doors in March 2016.
Participation in MPP was open to all and contributors agreed to donate their designs to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital Trust (NMCHT), as well as to allow MPP to exhibit and reproduce limited copies as part of its fundraising efforts.
The underlying approach of MPP was to facilitate broad international participation and for the posters to portray the rich tapestry of different cultures as reflected in each contributor’s view of Mandela, his values and his extraordinary legacy. His ability to forgive and his deep sense of selflessness and altruism had a marked impact on the collective consciousness of people – not only in South Africa but all over our planet – of what constitutes freedom, reconciliation, appreciation of cultural diversity, justice and equality.
A winning team of collaborators
The initial partnership of two individuals grew rapidly to include a team of 15 volunteers, now known as the Mandela Poster Project Collective (MPPC). In keeping with the selflessness personified by Madiba, these highly motivated individuals have over the past two years been giving freely of their time and expertise. Jogie explains: “We are acutely aware that the Nelson Mandela brand is open to exploitation. We are thus emphatic that this project is not for gain and has no commercial interest. It is not affiliated to any organisation and is solely a social project.”
Ithateng Mokgoro, fellow MPPC member says: “The creative community is known to be sensitive and responsive to social needs and giving freely of their time to valid causes such as this project in the spirit of ubuntu (an African philosophy that loosely translates as “human kindness”).” Jogie adds that design has the ability and responsibility to effect social change: “I think the essence of Madiba lives on in the spirit of ubuntu that we have experienced – a spirit of humanity and selflessness that has become a hallmark of the project … and the glue that has held this entire project together for us.”
Says Lange: “The magic of this project lies in the makeup of MPPC. We are a group of people from radically diverse cultural and professional backgrounds; we communally speak more than a dozen languages. But more importantly, we have a common goal and a shared value system; design needs to concretely contribute to greater society in a tangible manner. We therefore approached the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital Trust to offer our project as a fundraising initiative. The global design community supported this alliance and they responded way beyond our original expectations.”
The team had only 60 days (May to July 2013) to give effect to the detail planning and implementation of the project. And nobody, least of all the two early proponents of the MPP, could have foreseen what transpired after the birth of the project.
Soon after its launch, MPP went viral through the team tapping into their personal networks and social media platforms such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter. Lange says: “We started receiving confirmations on the very first day that we circulated the call for participation, and two weeks later we started receiving invitations from various countries to exhibit the collection, which is amazing since the collection didn’t exist as yet.”
Through an astonishing explosion of interest shown in the project, more than 700 posters by designers from over 70 countries were submitted within the space of 60 days. Posters were received from all continents, constituting an impressive global response. Only the Arctic in the North Pole area and Antarctica in the South Pole area were not represented.
“The MPP received more than 120 submissions in the first 30 days, surpassing the target of 95 in half of the allocated time. Due to overwhelming work pressure, we eventually stopped tracking the numbers after we reached the 700 mark. One great design idea sparked another, and another…” explains Lange.
On 8 June 2013, Madiba’s chronic respiratory problems resurfaced and he was hospitalised in Pretoria. This had a marked impact on the project plan. On 23 June 2013, it was announced that Madiba’s condition had become critical. Heartfelt prayers, messages of support and media attention proliferated and the world sat watching and waiting to see if Madiba would live long enough to celebrate his 95th birthday.
These unfortunate circumstances highlighted the significance of the MPP and the initiative started featuring in mainstream media, resulting in a rapid spike of submissions from all over the world. Lange explains: “Just on 26 June, more than 73 new posters came in overnight, and 230 during the run of 28 June.”
“The posters came from people’s hearts and we were, and still are, dumbstruck by the sheer magnitude of reverence that Madiba holds internationally, and how diverse people perceive his legacy” says Lange. “A recurring comment that we received is that ‘Nelson Mandela does not belong to South Africa. He belongs to the world’.”
The project’s enthusiastic uptake by designers from different cultures worldwide, and the resultant varied images they portrayed through their posters, furthermore stands in support of the need for all people on earth to strengthen our understanding that, to protect our planet, the culturally diverse ethnosphere (defined by anthropologist Wade Davis as “the sum total of all thoughts and intuitions, myths and beliefs, ideas and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness”) is of equal importance to the diversity of the natural biosphere. And, that just as there exists a biological web of life the myriad cultures of the globe create an intellectual and spiritual web of life that connects everyone on earth. The concept of the ethnosphere provides a “framework for considering the world’s cultures that emphasizes their significance, diversity, complexity, and interrelatedness – as well as their vulnerability” (http://mdp.berkeley.edu/exploring-the-ethnosphere/).
The MPPC and MPP’s contributors seem to be in agreement that Madiba’s legacy represents the concept of a diverse spiritual web of life that is critically dependent on a multiplicity of voices. This is clearly reflected in the substantial and diverse body of work that the MPP generated.
An intensive curatorial process
The vast number of poster submissions received by the 28 June 2013 deadline was curated by the MPPC through a three-phase shortlisting and final selection process to ensure that the eventual 95 Collection told a diversity of stories originating from many places and representing the most intriguing narratives.
During the first curatorial phase, the 700+ posters were reduced to 320 based on the following broad criteria: does the work answer the brief; is it of an acceptable aesthetic standard that represents inclusive international cultural biases; does it have strong narrative, symbolic and/or metaphorical value; does it convey the values that Madiba brought to the world; and will it elicit emotional and intellectual connections and responses with broad audiences if it is included in the 95 Collection?
Phase two allowed for the selection of 105 posters by interrogating the submissions according to additional pragmatic criteria focusing on overlapping creative concepts (similar themes and mirrored solutions), intellectual property rights and compliance with technical production specifications – many submissions unfortunately defaulted on these criteria.
The selection of the final 95 works at the third stage was based on the narrative relevance of the shortlisted posters. Lange explains: “The final stage of the curatorial process was the most difficult and critical for the MPPC since we were now required to construct a cohesive sequence for hanging exhibitions from a large pool of inspiring images.”
The collection was structured to create engaging narratives according to themes as well as facilitating “conversations between works” based on aesthetics, styles and messages. Lange says: “We had to consider how these posters were going to interact with audiences and how they would interact in different exhibition environments. The selected posters soon started ‘organising themselves’ into themes.”
Ten themes were identified to form the curatorial structure: 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.
The final 95 posters in the official 95 Collection include the works of designers from 37 countries. The selected posters represent a broad demographic spanning from all parts of the world and more importantly, a mix of voices ranging from internationally recognised high-profile designers to students. A digital catalogue of the exhibition can be viewed at http://www.creativeweek.pro/.
Powerful images showcased in venues far and wide
The inaugural exhibition opened at the University of Pretoria (South Africa) on 17 July 2013, the eve of Mandela’s 95th birthday and then went on public display the next day in celebration of Nelson Mandela International Day.
Speaking at the opening exhibition, Sibongile Mkhabela, CEO of the NMCHT, shared an anecdote about Mandela’s vision regarding caring for our children. “In 1993, in an encounter with children who live on the streets he says he made a commitment to himself that when he becomes president he knew he would have many things to do but he added a note to his own job description; that one of the things he would establish is an organisation which would change how society treats children.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcV3LvwJztU). And this vision is currently becoming reality with the building of the children’s hospital.
The MPP exhibition immediately started receiving a great deal of media attention from around the world including major news channels such as CNN, Fox News, BBC, Sky News, Channel 4, USA Today, the Washington Post and Arab News, among others. The exhibition received further media coverage in countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Honduras, India, Nepal, New Zealand, Poland and many more.
Lange comments: “Design-focused projects hardly ever make it into mainstream media. In this instance, it did, and for obvious reasons – the focus was on Madiba and MPP’s message was one of the few positive ones during these gloomy days when the world realised that one of its most inspiring living icons was facing his last mortal days. Thankfully Madiba remained with us for a few more months.”
By November 2015, the collection would already have either been physically exhibited or presented digitally at more than 35 venues and events in 12 countries, showing at museums, galleries, city halls, universities, conferences and conventions, multiple TEDx events, arts festivals, and several memorial events after Madiba’s death.
A highly selective few highlights include exhibiting the 95 Collection as part of the Open Design Festival in Cape Town in August 2013 in the same space (Cape Town City Hall) that Madiba presented his first speech after being released from prison in 1990 (the exhibition attracted around 6,000 visitors). Other notable exhibitions include the Peacemakers Museum in Sandton (attracting almost 9,000 visitors), Melbourne International Design Festival and Look Upstairs Conference, (2,400+ conference delegates and many more who were exposed to an interactive version of the MPP exhibition outside the venue); National Museum of Contemporary History, Ljubljana, Slovenia; two exhibitions in Thessaloniki, Greece; and the UN Nelson Mandela International Day celebration at the Rotunda of the Vienna International Centre.
Currently, the collection is exhibited as part of Africa Week in Zagreb, Croatia (May 2015), and the “Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design exhibition” at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany. It will be heading for Curitiba and Salvador Bahia, Brazil, from July to November 2015.
Kelo Kubu, one of the anchor MPPC members, stated at Melbourne International Design Festival in May 2014, that the team realised that for the project to be a success it was a case of “go big or go home. There is so much going on in the world that whatever you do, you have to make an impact. The MPP collection has among others served as an inspiration for the academic world; we had talks, case studies written on the initiative and collection, text book entries, academic papers, and we are just amazed that what started off as a simple call to celebrate one man’s 95th birthday has become a global collaboration in all sorts of areas, some of which we did not expect.” (Watch on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxL-mA2xkzc).
Strategic project partnerships
From the outset, the International Council of Design (Ico-D) endorsed MPP as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations. Hewlett-Packard came on board as production sponsor of three museum-quality collectible print sets of the 95 Collection, of which one set is used for exhibition purposes.
A single master set was sold to the South African Bureau of Standards’ Design Institute for ZAR 1.01m, of which 100% of the proceeds were donated to the NMCHT. According to the CEO of SABS, Dr Bonakele Mehlomakulu, the Bureau acquired the collection to ensure that it remains accessible to the public. “It is a public asset which needs to be shared with as many people as possible,” she said and added that the collection is a one-of-a-kind in the world. “Its value lies in its uniqueness, its subject matter, aesthetics, international representation, public interest and scholarly potential.”
“Very seldom in South Africa’s – or even the world’s – history have we seen the power of design as it has been embodied through the Mandela Poster Project,” says Gavin Mageni, group manager of the SABS Design Institute.
The second master set has been donated to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital to be used as part of its interior design once the facility has been completed. Mkhabela states: “Following the tremendous efforts of the Mandela Poster Project Collective, we were thrilled at the news of the sale to SABS – and the funds that have been donated to us. In addition to that, to have the collection also donated to us gives us a memento that will allow us to remember our beloved founder for years to come.”
Lange says: “In a mere two months, more than 700 designers responded to our call and the Mandela Poster Project matured from its humble beginnings to achieve all of its goals.”
According to Marilena Farruggia, former managing director of Ico-D, “One can truly appreciate the contribution that a person can make through an initiative such as the Mandela Poster Project. It gives palpable form to words expressed by Mr Mandela himself: ‘A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.’ … Someone special inspired something special and it now resonates worldwide in the design community.”
And MPP seems to have taken on a life of its own, resonating far wider than just the design community. It would not be surprising to in future hear of further innovative ways in which MPP will be used to enlighten generations to come regarding, for instance, the legacy of Mandela, contribute to academic discourse on principles of selflessness, freedom, reconciliation, appreciation of cultural diversity, justice and equality, as well as inform the planning and implementation of social entrepreneurship initiatives.
A second leg of MPP is also planned to comprise a coffee table book that will include a custom font (currently being designed), based on Nelson Mandela’s handwriting. The book will present 365 of the submitted posters with all funds raised by sales donated to the NMCHT.
Reflecting on MPP two years on, Lange says: “When we initiated this humble project the aim of a small group of people was to celebrate a great man who contributed an admirable value system to the world. Madiba inspired us to use our talents to make a positive contribution to society, and more specifically to support the NMCHT. Our response was a creative one, untested, and one that held nothing other than aspirations of forming an imagined international community of like-minded people. The Mandela Poster Project went on to inspire others and it has become a global movement. Testimony of this is the vibrant international travelling schedule of the 95 Collection. Similarly, two years after the closing date for submissions in 2013, the creative community is still inspired and we continue to receive submissions on MPP’s Facebook page.”
When asked if Madiba was aware of the project when he was still alive, but already seriously ill, Lange says “We don’t know, but we surely hope so. He would definitely have smiled kindly upon it.”
This article is the first in a series of three articles on the MPP with the second and third articles planned to focus on exploring the social entrepreneurship approach followed for the project, as well as the link between the images reflected in the posters and Mandela being viewed as an icon.
Photo credit: Metallus Photography