17 Dec 21 ICONS: Gcina Mhlope
21 ICONS South Africa, the 21 week long multimedia project by photographer/filmmaker Adrian Steirn, comes to a close with one of the nation’s most beloved storytellers, Gcina Mhlope.
Mhlope’s irrepressible spirit drives her every day to share Africa’s stories, myths, folktales, history and values through the ancient oral tradition of storytelling. Mhlope is also an accomplished author, poet, playwright, director, performer and public speaker. Her works have been translated into German, French, Italian, Swahili and Japanese, and she has spent much of her career travelling and performing across the globe.
Because of the widespread admiration for her contribution to the art of traditional storytelling, many people wrongly assume that Gcina is a shortened version of Gcinamasiko, which means “keeper of heritage”. But her full name is Nokugcina, although she has happily taken on Gcinamasiko and even used it for one of her philanthropic endeavours, an arts and heritage trust. It aims to foster a culture of reading and writing in South Africa, especially among children.
The trust provides writing and story-creation opportunities and promotes African writers and the heritage of storytelling in schools, with a focus on those that are under-resourced. It exposes youngsters to established writers and storytellers to learn these skills from them, and also encourages reading at schools through the makeover and stocking of their libraries.
Steirn’s portrait of Mhlope reflects his interpretation of a woman who carries her stories with her. He positioned Mhlope carrying books on her head in a close-up frame, her smile and wide-open eyes telling stories of their own. Among them is a thought for South Africans on the eve of Reconciliation Day on December 16: “We are at a place that is beautiful, but it is a place where we need to regroup and work even harder to make this the beautiful nation. We still need to braid that rope — a long rope, people of different races, different religions, different backgrounds and different skills working together — and throw it as high as we can into the sky and catch the rainbow, bring it back home. Bring it back home.”
The original, signed version of Mhlope’s portrait will be auctioned at the end of the series and the proceeds donated to the Gcinamasiko Arts and Heritage Trust.
Over the past 21 weeks black and white portraits of 21 South African heroes were shared as collectable posters in the Sunday Times newspaper, and the accompanying short films were aired on SABC3. 21 ICONS South Africa is proudly sponsored by Mercedes-Benz South Africa, Nikon, Deloitte, The Sunday Times, SABC3 and the Department of Arts and Culture. Additional credits go to content-creation company Ginkgo Agency.