Mural mural on the wall, who’s the visual artist among us all

I did it Mao WeiWei

At the corner of Main and Berea streets lies a ceramic plate depicting the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, in a contemporary Johannesburg setting. In this piece, I Did It Mao Weiwei, Julie Lovelace, a Johannesburg-based ceramic artist, plays on a triple entendre portraying Chairman Mao crying blood while referencing the work of a dissident contemporary visual Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei.

Lovelace also plays on one of Frank Sinatra’s signature songs, My Way, about a man looking back fondly on a life he lived on his own terms.

This artworkinspired a quest for a South African visual artist of Chinese origin. The Chinese community has contributed to the South African economy formally and informally for decades. However, there seems to be an absence of visual arts produced by Chinese South Africans.

The China Johannesburg Connection

Lovelace’s piece highlights the increased focus on the relationship between China and South Africa which transcends pure politics and economics. Lovelace says she created the work to shed light on what happened to Weiwei: “Like many people around the world I was quite upset that he could be taken away like that,” says Lovelace on her Facebook page.

Weiwei was arrested in 2011 and held by Chinese officials for over two months without any official charges being brought against him.

Inter-relations and inter-connections between China and South Africa were explored in the Ruth Simbao exhibition Making Way. Simbao, a Rhodes University professor and art historian, curated Making Way showing contemporary art produced by South African and Chinese artists.

The exhibition took place at the Standard Bank art gallery in Johannesburg, after it was shown at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in July 2012. Making Way looked at the China-Africa engagement in terms of culture and the visual arts.

Simbao says Making Way increased an awareness of art and challenged preconceived notions and fears about the Chinese presence in South Africa and on the African continent by exploring cultural links between South Africa and China. Strangely, there was no representation by Chinese South Africans in the exhibition even though the Chinese South African community has a significant presence in Johannesburg.

The quest to find a South African artist of Chinese origin takes me to Emma Chen, an art collector and owner of Red Chamber, a traditional Chinese restaurant in Hyde Park. Chen has a life-sized sculpture of a terracotta warrior in her restaurant, “I imported it from China. It is very heavy and identical to the ones that were discovered in Shaanxi province.”

There are also four traditional Chinese ceramics and a red dragon neatly placed on one of the window panes at Red Chamber. When I ask her if art as a profession is encouraged in the Chinese South African community, she shakes her head vigorously: “Unfortunately the South African Chinese, the SABC one, two and three are not exposed to art. I don’t think it’s encouraged.”

SABC one, two and three refers to the three waves of Chinese migrations to South Africa. According to a paper by Yoon Jung Park (2009), the first wave of Chinese immigrants came to South Africa as indentured labourers in the late nineteenth century.

Part One: The three waves of Chinese migration

In her paper, Park explains that the first Chinese South African community of approximately 10 000 is made up of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation South Africans whose ancestors began arriving from China in the late 1870s. The Taiwanese and Taiwanese South African community, established in the late 1970s and 1980s is about 6 000 strong. And the newest and by far the largest community of Chinese began arriving from mainland China in the mid- to late-1990s; estimates of this community range from 200 000 to over 350 000.

Part Two: Traditional versus modern careers

Chen is a small but strong woman. She uses her hands when she speaks. She summons one of her waiters and asks him to bring me some tea.
“You would love some tea no? Ofcos you want tea. Who doesn’t want tea,” she says.

She explains that Chinese South Africans want their children to have professional jobs such as accounting and law and do not consider a career in the visual arts an appropriate profession: “When you are on the fringe of society, your parents don’t want you to be artists, they want you to be professionals.”

After speaking to Chen, I left Hyde Park thinking it was not possible for an entire community not to have visual artists. The SABC two’s and SABC three’s left China at a time when there was a radical transformation created by the new generation who are a product of rapid change.

This transformation created a multitude of spaces, both physical and metaphysical, for new perspectives and visual expression. The current Chinese generation lives in a time when free-thinking and personal expression is possible, new values are being established while former ones are being abandoned.

Examples of traditional and contemporary Chinese art: Chinese dragons, lanterns and calligraphy

Gallery owner of Art on Paper and contemporary Chinese art lecturer at the University of Johannesburg Wilhelm Saayman says there is a perception that there is a lack of traditional and contemporary Chinese art in Johannesburg. In my quest to find a Chinese South African visual artist, I found pieces of traditional and contemporary Chinese art in the greater Johannesburg area.

Gallery Runs

With this in mind I went to Maboneng precinct, “hipster” central in downtown Johannesburg. The area is a regeneration of old Johannesburg. Maboneng houses a bioscope, the only independent cinema in Johannesburg, the 12 Decades Hotel which has 12 rooms themed with South African history broken down into 12 distinct eras, a number of quaint restaurants and clothing stores.  There were hipsters wearing their dark-rimmed glasses dressed in “ironic” wear, typing on their iMacs, iPods and iPhones while drinking international craft beers. Maboneng precinct houses Arts on Main and inside there are a number of art galleries and art studios.

My journey began at David Krut Projects. The gallery is known to give space to young artists who are not established in the industry. On arrival, I asked the receptionist if the gallery had work produced by Chinese South African visual artists. She stared me up and down then pointed her forefinger in the direction of a woman working on what looked like an early 20th century printer.

“I am not Chinese,” she said before I uttered a word. “My name is Kim-Lee Loggenberg.”

“Oh th-that’s q-quite ah-alright,” I stuttered. Could she have read my mind?

Loggenberg, a print maker, says the gallery has never exhibited work by Chinese immigrants or Chinese South African visual artists. She says they have neither been approached by a Chinese artist nor been made aware of Chinese artists in South Africa. Loggenberg says she thinks Chinese migrant families raise their children to run businesses so they can support their families: “In general I’m not sure there are any South African Chinese visual artists. I mean if you had to tell your Chinese mom that you want to become an artist, her reaction would be ‘there is no way you can make a living’ and that would probably kind of affect their choice to be an artist.”

I left David Krut Projects and walked upstairs to Kim Lieberman’s studio. Lieberman, an established artist who has exhibited her work both locally and internationally, was working on a piece for a client: “A Chinese South African visual artist? I have a client who is Chinese, that doesn’t count does it,” she laughs. Lieberman says even when she was at university there were no Chinese South Africans in her class: “There were Muslims, Africans, Coloured, but no Chinese.”

As I walked out of Lieberman’s studio, I ran into Ron Werndale, a jewellery designer and lecturer at the University of Johannesburg (UJ): “There is one guy in Cape Town that I know who’s a jewellery designer. I can’t think of any Chinese South Africans who are in art.” 

I left Arts on Main and headed to Art on Paper, an art gallery at 44 Stanley Avenue where I met with owner and contemporary visual artist, Wilhelm Saayman, who also teaches contemporary Chinese art at UJ.

“There’s one print maker and she works with David Krut, do you know David Krut? And she has printed with him and her work is about these beautiful sack cloths.”

“Is it Kim-Lee?”

“Yes, yes, that’s her name.”

“She’s not Chinese,” I said.

“Oh my god, ok then, what is she then?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t want to ask.”

“Probably Taiwanese or Vietnamese. I don’t know any then.”

I made my way to Dion Chang’s office. Chang is a fashion stylist, trend analyst and a Chinese South African: “What? A Chinese South African visual artist? I don’t know anyone. I can’t think of one right now. I have so much work, I really can’t talk to you right now,” said Chang, clicking away on his computer.

Chinese-influenced art in Maboneng

Chinese contemporary art can be found in Maboneng precinct, also known as the “hipster” hub of Joburg.  This interactive map gives the exact locations of Chinese-inspired art pieces. Hover over the image to access the elements and click on relevant links.

Art and the survival of immigrant communities

Defeated, I went to the University of Witwatersrand fine art department. The building is grey with white walls and looks more like a physics department. What it lacks in colour, the students made up for with their tattooed arms and multiple piercings. I made my way to Raimi Gbadamosi’s office. Gbadamosi is a Wits professor and contemporary British conceptual artist and writer whose work addresses themes of identity and art theory. Outside his office were massive art pieces: “It’s that time of the year, my students are getting ready to submit their final projects.” 

Gbadamosi says immigrant communities around the world have different sets of dynamics to deal with in their new homeland. He adds these immigrant communities are aware their existence is constantly under question. As a result, the community finds ways of satisfying their immediate needs such as getting a roof over their head, feeding themselves and their family and educating their children so they will survive within that community. 

Gbadamosi arrived in Johannesburg during the 2008 xenophobic attacks: “On arriving here I saw the same patterns as I did in Britain and in fact here it is more deadly.” Gbadamosi arrived to see images of people being burnt alive across local media. He says, even though the Chinese South Africans were not the primary target, they were aware they were a step away from being the targets of attack.

Gbadamosi says the fear or awareness, whether conscious or unconscious, leads to a level of pragmatism within the community that should a crisis occur, they should be safe. He adds that a sure way of being safe is having money because having status protects you from the ravages of xenophobia and racism. He says he is not surprised at all that art as a profession is discouraged within the Chinese South African community: “The immediate needs of that community will come before what is often seen as frivolity.”

I left Gbadamosi’s office and found Gabi Ngcobo, a Wits fine arts lecturer, curator and co-founder of a Johannesburg-based independent collective platform, the Centre for Historical Re-enactments. I told her about my quest and she started clicking frantically on her computer.

“There’s a Chinese graffiti artist, he goes around the world tagging buildings. His name is DALeast … he tagged a building somewhere in Maboneng.”

“That’s impossible, I was just at Maboneng,” I said, but jotted down the exact location of the building.

The other side of town

With that information in hand, I headed back to the Maboneng precinct, determined to find the artwork. I walked past Arts on Main, away from the hipsters with their international craft beers and their “ironic” looks towards the other side of Fox Street. Four young men were standing next to a blue corrugated iron container with the words Chinese shipping written in both Mandarin and English, popping beats and free-styling, drinking 750ml Carling Black Label beer straight from the bottle.

When I arrived at the Maverick Corner, on the other side of Fox Street, there was a 3D mural of seven antelopes chasing a cheetah. The cheetah had wheels instead of legs, speeding away from the attacking antelopes. The painting, simply called Creature, looked as though there were metal shards protruding from the wall.

DALeast expresses life-emotions and the environment, and uses different artistic forms to speak.  What he does is paint giant animals onto the sides of buildings using black spray paint, which he builds up with grey and white paint colours to create a 3D effect. His illusions are big enough to admire from a distance yet detailed enough to observe up close.

“Creature” a mural at Maverick Corner by Chinese artist DALeast. Photograph: Thuletho Zwane

“Creature” a mural at Maverick Corner by Chinese artist DALeast. Photograph: Thuletho Zwane

In an interview with the UK Daily Mail, DALeast says he uses the animals to reflect the human condition. The animals are typically depicted in two disconnected parts, often disintegrating at the centre or falling away at the sides.

DALeast, who does not want to reveal his real name, can be compared to Banksy, the mysterious “guerrilla” street artist from Bristol in the UK. Banksy, who was born in 1974, displays his art on public surfaces such as walls. The two have turned being anonymous into a sport, producing murals at a flash, not wanting to be detected.

DALeast was born in 1984 in Beijing and currently lives in Cape Town. He travels the world tagging walls in different countries, including France, Israel, China, Namibia and the United States.

I was not able to get hold of DALeast. I am only certain he exists because his murals exist and he has over-active Twitter and Facebook accounts. His Twitter timeline suggests he is preparing for a show in London, UK. He is as elusive as the quest to find him has been.

During my interview with Prof Gbadamosi, he said galleries in Johannesburg were still fixated with the Eurocentric idea of art and this could be the reason there are not a lot of South African Chinese artists:  “If I were an artist of Chinese origin and I see another artist of Chinese origin being exhibited, it would make me aware there are possibilities still, but if I go from gallery to gallery from exhibition to exhibition and at no point do I see myself, do I recognise myself, do I hear myself being spoken about, I would simply think there is no future. Sometimes we need to see ourselves in order to recognise ourselves.”

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