Painting what needs stating

Lee Meyer

ARTIST Khaya Witbooi knows what it’s like to suffer for his craft.

Retrenched from his job as an illustrator in Pretoria three years ago, he was faced with a tough decision: Return home to Uitenhage’s Kwanobuhle township and work odd jobs, or move to Cape Town to follow his dream of becoming a successful artist.

The decision became easier after he accompanied fellow artist Loyiso Mkize to a gallery in Cape Town, where one of Mkize’s paintings sold for R10000 within a day. Inspired by his friend’s good fortune, Witbooi relocated.

The plan was straightforward enough – stay in a homeless shelter by night, produce quality art by day. He approached The Haven Night Shelter, notorious for its high demand and lengthy queues.

“They took me in based on the strength of the art I had with me. They could see I was serious about getting somewhere.”

But he needed a workspace too.

He reached out to Ayanda Mabulu, the artist behind the infamous, nude depictions of President Jacob Zuma and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Mabulu saw a bit of himself in Witbooi, whose work has a similar political consciousness.

“He took me to the Good Hope Art Studios at the old castle. It was a lucky break,” Witbooi said.

Under Mabulu’s tutelage he came up with some of his most memorable pieces to date. One of these found its way into the hands of Charl Bezuidenhout, owner of the Worldart gallery in Cape Town. The piece, titled Moths Around a Flame, was inspired by the case of Nwabisa Ngcukana, a young woman from Johannesburg who was stripped naked and assaulted by a group of taxi drivers for wearing a miniskirt.

“It sold within an hour for R12000,” Witbooi recalls.

For him, the critical value of the piece outweighed the hefty price tag.

“Each painting I make has a message. Someone’s rights were raped, I couldn’t close my eyes to that.”

In October last year Witbooi was chosen among 20 of SA’s most promising artists to have their work displayed in a building formerly occupied by drug dealers and prostitutes.

He offered another heartfelt piece to the exhibition, a slain Marikana mineworker cradled in his mother’s lap, a reference to Michelangelo’s Pietá featuring Jesus and Mary in a similar pose.

“I found it ridiculous that artists weren’t discussing Marikana, like they were too scared to take sides. My point was to encourage conversation instead of playing the same old blame game,” he said.

His latest project, a solo exhibition at Bezuidenhout’s gallery opens on March 11.

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