Review – Nelson Mandela Poster Exhibition

On the 17th of July, I attended the opening of the Mandela Poster Project at the University of Pretoria. There was lots of press and so I decided to take a different look at the exhibition: examine not just at the work but also at the people and their interaction with the posters.

Marking the statesman’s 95th birthday, which fell the following day, the exhibition is a collection of excellent work – each submission from a designer somewhere in the world culminating in a body of work rich in difference and held together by a common love and admiration of Nelson Mandela and his life’s work.

There was a curious sense of fate hanging over the display of work due to the timing of the exhibition. Mandela, now supposedly out of the worst of it, has been in hospital under close supervision. Aging noticeably in the last few years, this is no real surprise. Thrilled as I am, and the rest of the world too, that Mandela is doing better, I couldn’t help but wonder if indeed he would make it to the next day and reach his 95th birthday. Sombre I know. But nonetheless…

There were hushed mutterings and quite discussions. People seemed a little afraid to be too exuberant. Video cameras filmed the onlookers and presenters spoke with some of the artists and organizers. Photographers wondered around snapping away at the work and the people. Everyone there had their smart-phones out documenting every moment. They could have been a little part of history. In fact they were, just without much fanfare.

As fate would happily have it, Mandela did reach the milestone. All 95 of the posters sit comfortably representing a year in the great man’s life. Initially, the project orchestrators did not expect the massive response to the call for submissions that came flooding into their inboxes. They should have. Over 700 submissions came in. Awed at the number, the decision was made to organize along with a worldwide roaming exhibition of the 95 finalists, a special showcase of 500 of the total entries.
I spoke with a teacher who was there. He felt, unsurprisingly, that exhibitions like this should be in places where the youth and underprivileged could have access to the posters, so that they could be a part of the celebration and so that they could be educated and inspired. 

One of the artists, Gareth Steele, in front of his submission.
The work is good and a testament to an eminent man. Everyone was keen to get in on the act. The quality of the work was mixed, as it always seems to be at these crowd-sourced things. There was a healthy mix of strong design with clever use of negative space, colours and typography. There was also a smattering of the so-so. But this is not an art exhibition: this is a call for those who wanted to, to create a tribute to a man they revere. In this light, it is a huge success and some of the works are really wonderful pieces of design. 

But, Dear Administrators, marketing still matters. In an age where people expect social media and a famous name to launch an event to the top of the twitter-verse and everyone’s news-feed, the opening was small and sufficient and filled with those who already knew about it long in advance. I was lucky enough to be there, a guest of a Facebook ‘ticket winner’. Plus one for social media. I’d never have known about it otherwise. I just hope that other people, outside of a small room in a University with nice suits and polite opinions, get to see and enjoy the posters.

© D. Rosenthal 2013 All Rights Reserved.