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Sunday, December 15, 2013


(Adrian Steirn with Gcina Mhlophe)

South Africa’s best-loved storyteller Gcina Mhlophe ensures that the 21 Icons South Africa series ends on an infectious and lyrical note on December 15, when her short film is released on the 21 Icons website and to online platforms worldwide.

Photographer and filmmaker Adrian Steirn is enchanted by storyteller Gcina Mhlophe, who comes alive as an impassioned storyteller of not just history, folktales and myths, but of present-day South Africa. She has an irrepressible spirit that drives her every day to share Africa’s stories, myths, folktales, history and values through the ancient — and, sadly, diminishing — oral tradition of storytelling. As Steirn says: “She’s the custodian of stories. That is a huge part of South African culture.”

“When I wake up in the morning I've got a challenge, I've got a reason to wake up, I've got work to do: to preserve the heritage of my people,” Mhlophe tells the 21 Icons team: “I tell stories in order to wake up stories in other people, because I truly believe every living being has got a story to tell.”

And, as Steirn says, she has a captivating way of doing it. “When she tells a story, you watch a lady come alive. Her very being is inspired by the stories that she carries with her every day.”

Although best known for her storytelling, Mhlophe 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. “I have been telling stories to men and women and children of different races and different cultures all over the world and it is an amazing thing,” she says. “You can connect with people of all races, of all cultures, in whatever language you use, because the joy that you feel as you tell a story will resonate with them.”

Steirn’s portrait of Mhlophe reflects his interpretation of a woman who carries her stories with her. He positioned Mhlophe 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.”

And, as always, Mhlophe brings it back to storytelling: “You know, one of my favourite authors, Ben Okri, says: ‘A nation is as weak or as powerful as the stories they choose to tell themselves or one another.’ I love that. Our story as South Africans is as weak or as powerful as the stories we choose.”

The portrait of Mhlophe will be published in the Sunday Times on December 15 and its original, signed version will be auctioned at the end of the series and the proceeds donated to the Gcinamasiko Arts and Heritage Trust.

Public participation is invited on Twitter: @21icons; and 21 ICONS South Africa is proudly sponsored by Mercedes-Benz South Africa, Nikon and Deloitte and supported by The Department of Arts & Culture as a nation-building initiative.