Portraits of artists as young activists

PAINTED on a skateboard is an unlikely place to find the face of Miriam Makeba. But that, says Cape Town artist, Khayalethu Witbooi, is the whole point of the artwork, which is to be shipped to Bremerhaven in Germany shortly as part of the Young Visions In Motion group exhibition curated by entrepreneur, photographer and skateboarder Kent Lingeveldt.

Using his signature combination of stencilling and oil painting to illustrate how he feels about the late Grammy Award-winning singer, Witbooi calls the piece “Che Makeba”.

It shows her wearing a trademark Che Guevara beret and singing, not into a microphone, but a hand grenade. The unlikely locale of the image and the militant trimmings are deliberate.

“Miriam Makeba was not only a diva,” Witbooi says. “She was an activist who did much more for this country than many of us are aware. She told the world where SA was, who we were and what we were going through. That’s what I want to celebrate with this work.

“I also want to remind people how manipulated the history of this country can be. Because of the way we’re fed our news — mostly through popular media — too many of us remember the singer only for her music. But she was an important activist. We have to look beyond the way history is presented. Often it focuses only on certain points. It’s important that we don’t forget about critical people and things that contributed to where we are now. And by sharing this message on a skateboard, I hope it reaches a wider audience than it might otherwise.”

Witbooi — who began working as a full-time visual artist only three years ago, and has already been part of two other group shows and held his first solo exhibition, New Dog, Old Tricks at the Worldart gallery in Cape Town in March — uses an edgy, urban technique to express what he sees and cares about.

The area behind Makeba’s head, for example, resembles the wall of the old corner shops found in places such as Woodstock or Salt River where, says Witbooi, “freedom of expression is more obvious than in more formal areas like the centre of Cape Town”. The wall is layered with paint, then floral wallpaper. Graffiti followed. Stickers were applied and pulled off. Posters too. Street artists sprayed their tags and advertisers attached their logos.

“I want to give the feeling that you’re not looking at a painting, but that you’re seeing something that is between reality and ideas. It should be something you can easily relate to and make you wonder how it all got there. I want viewers to think about the many different people — some mature artists, some immature artists and some not artists at all — who used this wall or, in my other works, garage door, corrugated iron and tiles in a public toilet, as a canvas. They used the same space to say different things, to develop a language and to tell a history.”

But, while the Che Makeba skateboard celebrates the singer’s contributions as an activist and warns us against accepting history at face value, another of Witbooi’s paintings, this time a large spray-and-oil on canvas, entitled Sold Out, tells a more sinister story of democracy in the balance.

In this case, the artist transformed the canvas into a sheet of rusty corrugated iron. Again, graffiti artists have left their mark, someone has imitated Andy Warhol and others have scribbled. A notice advertising “safe abortions” and a Jacob Zuma campaign poster have been pasted on the iron and then partially torn off.

Most recently applied are the stencilled images of a couple of Stormtroopers (à la Star Wars) and a parachute, and paintings of a man on his knees, a tyre and an Independent Electoral Commission voting box in a petrol can.

Witbooi created Sold Out after seeing video footage of police dragging Mozambican taxi driver Mido Macia behind their van earlier this year. The parachute represents the invasion of the masked Stormtroopers — that is, the ambiguous keepers of the peace, the police. The tyre is Macia. “I felt the dark side of our democracy when I learnt about the taxi driver and a stronger sense than ever that things are not going right. It seemed the police were sending a message saying, ‘This is what we do to you if you mess with us’. We voted for this democracy but it can turn against us. I didn’t want to be too obvious in the painting or make it a depressing piece, but I also believe that as an artist I have a responsibility to express this reality.”

Witbooi’s work is extraordinarily measured, both in process and content. He is precise about how he creates it and what it says, and is determined to draw viewers in and challenge their perceptions of what is real and what is not.

“One of the greatest compliments I received was when the curator of a major corporate collection said he didn’t believe that one of my images was painted. He thought it was a real poster that I’d stuck on the canvas. That’s the kind of reaction I like.”

But it is not just his work that is measured: Witbooi’s decision to become a full-time artist was also a methodical and deliberate process. While he has always been confident about his talent — “It’s genetic. My father and grandfather could also recreate the world visually” — it was only when he was retrenched by the Pretoria architectural firm where he worked as an architectural illustrator for five years, that he began the process of becoming a full-time artist.

“In a sense, being retrenched was a blessing. It was a good job and it seemed irresponsible for me to leave it of my own accord. But when the recession came and I was let go, I remembered an article I had read about Ayanda Mabulu and the Good Hope Art Studio programme.

“I knew Ayanda because we had lived in the same place when I was in Cape Town previously. So I decided to return to the Western Cape and look him up.”

Mabulu was gracious. He and fellow artist Loyiso Mkize invited Witbooi to accompany them on visits to Cape Town galleries to show them their art. Although he had none of his own to show yet, Witbooi was encouraged by the experience and briefly went to his place of birth, Uitenhage’s Kwanobuhle township, to consider his options and “find my voice”. By the time he returned to Cape Town a few months later, he was ready to take the step and, having found a residency at the Good Hope Art Studio at the old castle, set to work. Charl Bezuidenhout of Worldart gallery was the first to sell his work.

In December 2011, Witbooi was awarded an artist’s residency at Greatmore Studios in Woodstock, where he says he is enjoying growing as an artist.

“I want to continue to share relevant things I care about. Many of these issues reference SA but actually, they are universal.

“And that’s important for me. I don’t want to box myself in as an African artist. The only things that restrict me are my visual limitations. And those are unlimited.”