HEROES AND HALLMARKS
In his homage to writer, poet and humanist Oscar Wilde, actor Stephen Fry gives a wonderful description of being driven past the Empire State Building in New York. From close quarters, with a myriad other buildings surrounding it, its real height can’t be seen: the top of the edifice isn’t visible either, especially from a car window. It looks like just another building among many. However, some 20 or so blocks later, if one looks back, one suddenly sees the true scale of the building. It’s only now, from a distance, that one realises how it totally eclipses everything around it. This, says Fry, is how, 120 years after Wilde’s tragic death, we perceive what a colossus he really was: a giant soul towering over his peers, with a vision and reach miles above theirs.
For me, that criterion – “from a distance” – is critical in assessing which of our icons deserve to be on their podiums and which will have tumbled down, into obscurity, decades or centuries from now. We live with a daily onslaught of new icons – many of them spurious and self-appointed, driven by social media platforms and a noveltyhungry public. From Hollywood A-listers to the latest tech offerings, fashion designers, social leaders, wristwatches and holiday destinations, time and substance will be the ultimate litmus test, distinguishing between the cheap, the sensational and the truly great.
Icons who remain yardsticks of excellence in their particular sphere many years – or even centuries – after their deaths have clearly ignited an inextinguishable flame in some vital recess of the human imagination.
These are individuals who’ve inspired the generations following them and who embody the standards by which we continue to assess our own achievements.
One has only to think of American astronaut Neil Armstrong making the first bootprint on the moon, a defiant Steve Biko not only “writing what he liked”, but enjoining all Africans to claim their freedom, or a cigar-puffing Winston Churchill exhorting his country to believe in victory against Nazi tyranny. These are icons who’ve assumed nearmythical status.
In our own country, with its chequered history, we’ve produced not just national, but global icons: like our late, revered Nelson Mandela, whose moral and political greatness not only endures, but actually increases over time, particularly in the context of the deplorable extent to which our state’s integrity has been compromised over nearly a decade. Today, with new hope on the horizon, we give thanks for the gigantic footprint he left behind, by which we track our own progress.
In the performing arts, some of our greatest icons have, ironically, achieved that status by leading iconoclastic lives, such as the late great jazz maestro Bra Hugh Masekela – who infused improvisational brilliance with humanism and Africa’s inner tempi, divine debauchee Brenda Fassie and prophetic minstrel Moses Molelekwa. Mavericks and rebels have long been heroes, standing outside the mainstream and telling their own truth.
On the commodity level, fragrance houses like Chanel, horologists like Constantin Vacheron and – of course – motoring brands like Toyota have entrenched themselves so deeply into our consumer value system that they’re unassailable – and rightly so.
In an age when socio-political and cultural narratives swing unpredictably from one extreme to another, and obscure our bearings, our icons remain trusted co-ordinates. They remind us of what our bedrock values are, who we should follow and what should never change.
ICONOGRAPHY IS A HALLMARK OF OUR AGE, IN EVERY SPHERE OF OUR LIVES – FROM THE ARTS AND THE SCIENCES TO GEOGRAPHY, SPORT AND ENTERPRISE. BUT HOW MANY OF THEM DESERVE THEIR EXALTED STATUS – AND HOW MANY ARE JUST TRANSIENT TRENDS? ASKS KHANYI DHLOMO
Khanyi Dhlomo is a South African entrepreneur and businesswoman, and founder and CEO of Ndalo Media.