CINCINNATI -- "Mandela: Journey to Ubuntu" opens Friday at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and Matthew Willman, the photographer whose portraits of the former South African president are the heart of the brand-new exhibit, said Nelson Mandela would approve.
"This is an amazing exhibit," Willman said. "You're walking back into Africa. Not just into the issues, but walking back into Africa, the real, physical place."
The 37-year-old photographer grew up in South Africa under apartheid. From the time he was 15, Willman said his dream was to meet Mandela, the activist who helped end apartheid and, after more than two dozen years in prison, became president of a desegregated South Africa. Willman wrote 72 letters to Mandela and finally achieved his dream at age 23 as a documentary photographer.
He spent 10 years -- the last of Mandela's life -- documenting the philanthropist's work.
"When I met him … I said, 'It's taken me nine and a half years to get to you, Mr. Mandela,'" Willman said. "And he leaned over and said, 'Yeah. And why didn't you just phone me?'"
Nearly four years ago, when the Freedom Center honored Mandela posthumously with the International Freedom Conductor award, Willman began working with the Freedom Center on this exhibit, the first since Mandela's death to tell his story. Willman's photographs are at the center of the exhibit, but it also takes people through places and moments important to Mandela's life. Visitors will walk through Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned, and Mvezo Village, where he was born; they'll learn and feel what apartheid was like.
"He'd like the fact that, yes, it's about him, but it's much more about the collective," Willman said. "He'd love that it connected with his rural background, with the collective … that it explains what apartheid was."
"Ubuntu," from the exhibit's title, is a South African term for humanity and the idea that all people share a universal bond. That lesson -- the lesson of Mandela's life, which allowed him to unite South Africa -- is relevant now in America, Willman said, as the country deals with divides across politics and questions about what democracy is and should be.
"I know Mandela has value in America. You're a nation of immigrants," Willman said. "... This exhibition is incredibly valuable at this time, and that's purely because the lid of complacency has been taken off."
Mandela is widely respected because of his insistence on unity and his magnanimity. Willman gave the example of Mandela personally making sure that the children of his guards at Robben Island received an education. He toppled apartheid, Willman said, because he brought people together.
To spread that message, the Freedom Center intends to send "Mandela: Journey to Ubuntu" all around the United States. The exhibit runs through Aug. 20 in Cincinnati and will head immediately to another museum. Marketing director Jamie Glavic said details are being worked out but the next location will be announced soon.
Willman, who travels 10 months of the year documenting the work of a variety of international aid organizations, will speak Friday at the opening reception of "Mandela: The Journey to Ubuntu" at the Freedom Center. The exhibit, like his work with Mandela, also represents his personal goals and achievements.
"What is the greatest poverty in our young people?" Willman said. "It's apathy and lack of dreams. You have to have dreams and goals in life. It gives you purpose, direction. If I didn't have the dream of meeting Nelson Mandela, where would I have been? What would I have done?"
'Mandela: The Journey to Ubuntu' opening reception
5 p.m. Friday
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, 50 E. Freedom Way, Downtown.
Free for Freedom Center members; $25 online; $10 for students.