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Icons revealed: Intimate portraits capture South Africa's most celebrated

<i>By </i><strong><i><a href='www.twitter.com/laurenmoorhouse' target='_blank'>Lauren Said-Moorhouse</a></i></strong><i>, for CNN</i><!-- -->
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</br>A stark look of contemplation is etched across <a href='http://edition.cnn.com/SPECIALS/africa/nelson-mandela/index.html' target='_blank'>Nelson Mandela</a>'s face. Holding up a simple, chaste hand mirror, the virtuous former South African president gazes quietly at his reflection. A gentle but indomitable power emanates from Mandela in what would become one of his final portraits, captured by<a href='http://www.adriansteirn.com/#!biography/c240r' target='_blank'> internationally-celebrated photographer Adrian Steirn</a>. <!-- -->
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</br>This is just one of the hauntingly beautiful yet innately complex portraits currently on display as part of the<a href='http://www.21icons.com/the-project/overview' target='_blank'> 21 ICONS series</a> at the <a href='http://www.21icons.com/news/events/moad-exhibition' target='_blank'>Museum of African Design</a> (MOAD) in Johannesburg's vibrant Maboneng neighborhood. <!-- -->
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</br>Through a series of photographs and short films, 21 ICONS is an inclusive multimedia project offering a poignant insight into the lives of 21 celebrated South African personalities -- from Mandela and Desmond Tutu to Hugh Masekela and William Kentridge. Intended to commemorate 20 years of democracy in the country, the project has taken Steirn and his team a grueling seven years to complete. But the result is an impassioned audio-visual production designed to inspire future generations of what can be achieved by a single individual. CNN spoke to Steirn about the story behind some of these portraits. <!-- -->
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</br><strong>Nelson Mandela</strong><!-- -->
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</br>"It started with Mandela, there is no better place to start," Steirn explains. "Nelson Mandela was simply an independent thinker. And he convinced the collective that perhaps there is another way. We've had lots of independent thinkers and as a community, I really do feel South Africa is a community of independent thinkers."<!-- -->
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</br>One September day in 2011, the team made their way to Mandela's Qunu home on the Eastern Cape to meet the man who had become a global icon of freedom. Nerves were heightened, emotions bubbling just under the surface. Sensing the tension in the room, Madiba did what, according to Steirn, he knew best -- he started making jokes. <!-- -->
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</br>"He has an incredibly sharp mind, even towards the end, his mind was incredibly sharp. He's interested, he's fascinated, he's really tuned to emotions really well," he reveals.<!-- -->
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</br>"That was Mandela's gift: to make anyone feel more important than he was when they met him. But in that moment, you are sitting there with tears in your eyes, shaking his hand, he has the ability to make you feel like you have business being there."<!-- -->
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</br>To honor such an auspicious personality, Steirn wanted to capture the former leader in a way that he'd never been shot before. "The mirror was just literally this physical metaphor for reflection -- reflection on him, reflection on his life, us to reflect on what we've all achieved," he explains. "I wanted to have a strong message to reflect on him. He made mistakes. He did incredible things. He represents human potential."

By Lauren Said-Moorhouse, for CNN

A stark look of contemplation is etched across Nelson Mandela's face. Holding up a simple, chaste hand mirror, the virtuous former South African president gazes quietly at his reflection. A gentle but indomitable power emanates from Mandela in what would become one of his final portraits, captured by internationally-celebrated photographer Adrian Steirn.

This is just one of the hauntingly beautiful yet innately complex portraits currently on display as part of the 21 ICONS series at the Museum of African Design (MOAD) in Johannesburg's vibrant Maboneng neighborhood.

Through a series of photographs and short films, 21 ICONS is an inclusive multimedia project offering a poignant insight into the lives of 21 celebrated South African personalities -- from Mandela and Desmond Tutu to Hugh Masekela and William Kentridge. Intended to commemorate 20 years of democracy in the country, the project has taken Steirn and his team a grueling seven years to complete. But the result is an impassioned audio-visual production designed to inspire future generations of what can be achieved by a single individual. CNN spoke to Steirn about the story behind some of these portraits.

Nelson Mandela

"It started with Mandela, there is no better place to start," Steirn explains. "Nelson Mandela was simply an independent thinker. And he convinced the collective that perhaps there is another way. We've had lots of independent thinkers and as a community, I really do feel South Africa is a community of independent thinkers."

One September day in 2011, the team made their way to Mandela's Qunu home on the Eastern Cape to meet the man who had become a global icon of freedom. Nerves were heightened, emotions bubbling just under the surface. Sensing the tension in the room, Madiba did what, according to Steirn, he knew best -- he started making jokes.

"He has an incredibly sharp mind, even towards the end, his mind was incredibly sharp. He's interested, he's fascinated, he's really tuned to emotions really well," he reveals.

"That was Mandela's gift: to make anyone feel more important than he was when they met him. But in that moment, you are sitting there with tears in your eyes, shaking his hand, he has the ability to make you feel like you have business being there."

To honor such an auspicious personality, Steirn wanted to capture the former leader in a way that he'd never been shot before. "The mirror was just literally this physical metaphor for reflection -- reflection on him, reflection on his life, us to reflect on what we've all achieved," he explains. "I wanted to have a strong message to reflect on him. He made mistakes. He did incredible things. He represents human potential."