Faith47′s work has been uplifting walls and making poignant artistic, social and political statements in the most public way for the last 10 years. The “En Jy Vir Ons?” piece near the empty fields of District Six is a case in point. She is one of South Africa’s most unflinching and overtly political artistic voices working in a truly democratic medium. And she’s increasingly being recognised as such. On the back of her latest gallery exhibition, Remnants of a Burnt History, currently showing at David Krut Projects in Johannesburg, we asked her a few questions.
Mahala: Can you tell us about your life. Your history. Where you’re from? Where you grew up, went to school?
Faith47: I’m from a place that has no real name. One of my early memories are of my mother carrying me around a nightfire where we used to stay on Red Hill and singing me a song to comfort me.
The song seemed so incredibly sad. It was about a girl who lived in a grand castle with expensive linen and majestic horses. She had everything she desired. Then one night, the gypsies gathered outside the castle gates, she sat up in her bedroom late into the night listening to them outside, she was so enchanted by their singing that the next morning she stole away from her life and ran with them. Her prince, he searched for her far and wide and eventually found her sleeping in a cold open field with the gypsy families. He couldn’t understand how she could leave all her comfort and luxury to live in the wild and begged her to return with him, but she told him that those material things meant nothing to her, and that she was happier under the stars with the gypsies.
I remember that this song made me weep deeply inside, there was some hard truth about life embedded in it that i didn’t quite understand but somehow I did.
Saints and Martyrs, oil on wood, 50 x 41cm
My mother is a legendary figure. She raised us on oats and baked potatoes. Full moons and mountain walks. She taught us about the sound of the rivers and the colours of the dry leaves in autumn. Her quiet manner of putting her 3 children’s needs in front of her own, in retrospect, has humbled me to the point of silence.
The impression that my childhood left on me was a deep connection with nature, its something that will stay with me forever, it has given me a secret window into our surroundings, the cities are temporary structures made from earth and stone. They are very strong indeed, but the cracks often allow for seeds to root themselves and if left uncut, plants will start to grow through the tar and cement.
One day everything will return to dust.
Nature is our biggest teacher. We should study her and revere her for we are indeed her weakest link. We have much to learn.
The Taming of the Beasts – Shanghai
How did you get into art? What made you start painting on walls? Who and what inspired you to be an artist? And lastly, what did you want to communicate when you first got started and realised you could make a life from your art.
My eyes have always daydreamed in colours, lines, textures, patterns. My mind is structured in images and emotions, the logically organized side of my brain has to weave itself through those channels for the chaos to become clear. It is quite a fascinating process and it has taken me years to perfect my navigation of it.
So far, not much has been strategic. I can say that life has just unravelled itself around me. I’ve worked really fucking hard to be where I am today, but it was not really a plan to get from A to B, it was more a matter of survival, stubbornness and determination.
Power and Enlargements Specialists, acrylic and oil on found object, 77 x 110cm
Since 2005 you’ve been working and ‘exhibiting’ your work in places as diverse as Amsterdam, Sweden, New York, Los Angeles, Brussels, Berlin, Birmingham, Vancouver, Eindhoven, Shanghai, Sao Paulo, Cologne, Paris, Tel Aviv, Melbourne, Slovakia etc. That’s a lot of travel – how did you get such a big international profile. Was it something that followed the work? Did you actively pursue international connections? Or do you have some other trade secrets.
Well, I think meeting the right people at the right time was one thing. The internet is another thing. Fate another. And hard work and dedication certainly helped.
What’s your life like right now. It looks like it’s abundant with opportunities and travel and work. How does it feel for you? Are you happy? Do you want more / less?
I’m excited. My son is turning out to be such an amazing, intelligent and wise human. My work is starting to converse with me on a deeper level. I’m learning more. seeing more and breathing deeper. I don’t want more, or less, I’m trying to learn to just be content and not grasp or yearn.
Much of your work is closely related to social, ecological and political issues, like justice and inequality. Real shit. What drives that?
Hmmmm… I grew up travelling on the trains every day. That was pretty raw. You’d experience and see a lot of things go down on those trains. I can say that was an education to me, my sister and I would always travel 3rd class, that was when they had only just opened up the carriages from white and non-white classes. So we’d get shouted at to go back to the white class, and made fun of. If we caught the early morning train wed always try to get onto the carriage where the ladies were singing, they were all on their way to their ‘maid’ jobs in the suburbs. The singing and stomping of feet and banging of walls would go right through my skin and into my bones. The hair on my arms would stand up in exhilaration.
I was stuck in a suburban school and the mentalities of most of the kids and their families there would really drive me crazy. I could never relate to that. Our upbringing had been so different.
I have always been very aware of human suffering. It really bothers me at a fundamental level and growing up in South Africa, is an experience that brings suffering into a very regular existence in terms of its every day appearance.
Reading books such as Naomi klein’s The Shock Doctrine and Thomas Packenham’s The Scramble for Africa further deepened my understanding of this human condition on earth.
I think that the plight of the individual is of utmost importance. Our spiritual journey. The reason why we are here at all. The mystery of existence and the absolute awe in the idea that existence is even possible at all. I don’t think my work is political or focuses on any specific social issues. I think it’s really about that existential search.
They say blood is heavier then water. That is true? Oil on wood, 46 x 39cm
How do you decide what to paint?
Ideas and images brew inside me, slowly formulating and incubating. Artworks are like children in a way. You pain for their existence and they bring you a greater understanding of yourself.
Do you think your art is making a tangible difference? Are you ameliorating ‘the situation’? Does it matter? Do you care?
I’m not precious about that. I don’t necessarily make work to have any effect on others. If that happens it is a side effect rather than a root ambition. That’s a bit of a lie. But I think it’s also really true.
You’re doing a major solo gallery exhibition at the moment, Fragments of a Burnt History at David Krut in Johannesburg, but up until now the world’s walls have been your gallery. How is this a different experience?
It’s been great in fact, Fragments of a Burnt History is a body of work that I’ve been building up for the last two years. It was a real journey for me, and once the work was finally installed and up, I suddenly felt so much lighter. Now I can finally move on with new ideas! It’s great to focus on a show like that, to work through a feeling for such a long period of time, complete it and close that chapter.
Painting walls is more condensed, a wall rarely takes more then 4 days, though at times I do work on a series of walls at a time. I guess the experience is refreshing. To down tools on one and pick up tools on another. In the air and under the water.
Tell us about the waiting series. I love that work and think it’s some of the most poignant artistic expression in SA right now. Cuts straight to the major issues our society is facing.
I think it cuts. The imagery cuts. The reality cuts right into this desperation that is so fundamental to our country’s psyche. This desperation for work, for honesty and reformation and service delivery. Waiting and waiting and waiting. Hungry.
Waiting is wasting time. It’s incredibly sad. Those pictures are tears.
Alexia Webster allowed me to reference some of her images of men at the side of the road waiting for work, I’m very grateful to her for that.
Where did the inspiration come from?
I had a conversation with a friend who was saying that the work focuses on some of the negative elements in our society and that one should try to highlight the positive things going on.
I know it might be helpful to focus on the positive things that are happening, and of course, there are many amazing things happening in South Africa right now. But I guess at this point in my life I needed to respond to the things I’ve experienced and observed growing up here. I just had to. We close our eyes to stay blind but our minds still bear witness somehow. And sometimes it’s good to purge things by really looking at them, in order to move through them. In fact the exhibition in Johannesburg has a lot of reference to our history, it has quite an archival feel to it. There’s a lot that we still need to process in order to really be here now in the present moment, and I think that came into the work at a subconscious level.
Who is DAL? How did you meet?
He’s an interesting creature from out of space who landed on earth and is trying to find his way home. Together we’re trying to figure out where exactly we are in the universe so that we can plan our route back to the illuminated planet that we once knew.
Tell us about the tumblr of unmade beds from around the world. Is it art, simple documentation or both. A way to document the nomadic nature of your life right now. Or perhaps a way to circumvent paparazzi-like questions (like the ones I’ve asked) about you, your history and your personal life?
That project is the purest art that either Dal or I have ever made.
Tell us about your blog This Life… what are the criteria for your posts on that?
That blog… is so relaxing. It’s really like a little cave I can sneak inside of and snuggle into. I don’t care about who reads it. It’s more about the process of making it. Sometimes I go through it to soothe my own self. Is that strange? Possibly.
Racing Home, scratching on found object, 47 x 60cm
Of your South African creative culture contemporaries.. who inspires and excites you the most?
My son Keya. The younger generation are going to bring it. I love some of the street fashion and dancing styles I’ve been seeing coming out of Joburg. Of course there’s Spoek Mathambo, The Frown, I like what Zander Blom is doing, Kudzi Chiurai, there’s this girl Nkuli Mlangeni who just blows my mind with her insights, and Clinton Osbourne has these incredible sculptures that he’s hiding in his house that we keep begging him to bring out into public view. Tyler B Murphy is always near and Daya’s son Unakh is really holding the future that we are all going to exist in.
Do you ever think about shifting mediums and maybe starting to do sculptures or video work or something else?
Sure, I’m positive that I’ll explore more things as I evolve. That’s what keeps things interesting. But all in its own time.
Daily Production, chalk, spraypaint and oil on found object, 120 x 155cm
Faith47′s Fragments of a Burnt History is currently showing at David Krut Projects in Johannesburg.