To me, art is the freedom to express yourself in any way you want. For some, it’s a statement against the nine to five that we’re told is the norm. For others, art is a reflection of life and hope that things can change for the better.
In Thembalethu, a township community near George, South Africa, three artists are using their art to inspire happiness. Upon entering Thembalethu I was immediately struck by how different everything was from what I was used to. Coming from Canada, we don’t have townships, our housing lies on a spectrum like any other country but there’s a base standard that is always met.
Now, faced with informal settlements up close and personal, I was seeing a side of reality that I wasn’t accustomed to. Accompanied by a photographer and my journey through the township began with Bulelani Bob.
Bulelani was well dressed in a white dress shirt and nice shoes as we approached him on the side of the street. His big smile greeting us as we arrived. He had some paintings in his bag and was more than happy to show them to us.
“I have a vision to see the world happy, there’s far too much depression in the world,” Bulelani tells me as he proudly displays his art of a boy staring at a car made out of wire.
“Our parents didn’t have money to buy us toys so we engineered our own, like wire cars. What we didn’t have growing up, we made it as kids. We had the best childhood ever. I wouldn’t be the artist that I am without having the community that’s here. The compliments they gave me, the feedback, it sharpened me as an artist,” explains Bulelani.
He pulls out a few of his art pieces and they’re portraits of people in states of various emotions and activities.
“I love doing portraits. I believe the details in the human form and all the details are so beautiful, so I’m just embracing that art form.”
We take a few photos of Bulelani before having him guide us to his home. His room was small but he made the most of the space by adorning it with paintings he’s done over the last 5 years.
What struck me most about Bulelani was his passion for what he does. It came through in his many art pieces and through his hopes for the future.
“I mainly display my art in the exhibitions that we have in the Thembalethu library. I have the workshops there twice a month, but I don’t have a permanent spot. I’m hoping to get a spot where I can leave my work and exhibit for the public to see. I’m hoping my art can help with the depression in the world.”
Talent is a funny thing, it’s hard to pinpoint where it comes from. Is it innate? Is it learned? A combination of both perhaps?
“I think I got the talent from God. It’s funny, my father couldn’t draw at all so I know I didn’t get the talent from him,” laughs Bulelani.
Regardless of where Bulelani got the talent from, it’s making him happy and all he wants is to give that happiness back to the world and his community. He’s been able to do all this in a place that would be too harsh for most, but that’s the thing about art, it has the ability to lift you up in otherwise difficult circumstances. It has the ability to inspire an entire community and to give hope for a brighter future.
“We don’t have to have everything to be happy, you just need to use what you have,” muses Bulelani.
Bulelani was kind enough to guide us through the streets of Thembalethu once again to the house of the next artist on our tour, Patrick Phantsi. Meeting Patrick is sort of like meeting that cool Rastafarian music teacher that you never had in high school.
Patrick lived in a house that overlooked beautiful rolling fields with mist-covered mountains in the distance. When I interviewed him, he proudly showed off his collection of artwork in front of his house.
“I like to paint either landscapes or people. If I’m touched by something or someone, then I’d like to paint it,” explains Patrick. “I love the feeling of showing them their portraits. It always makes them happy.”
In the pieces of artwork that I saw from Patrick, I could tell there was a difference in his style compared to Bulelani’s. Patrick’s artwork was more of a reflection of the beauty of the human form whereas Bulelani’s portraits were more an expression of how people felt in their environment.
“A certain art piece will reflect on a certain emotion and then somebody will relate to that emotion,” Patrick explains. “One looks at it from this dimension and somebody else sees it from another dimension, so it depends on the person who’s committed.”
Patrick got into art through an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. “I started making money in school by doing drawings and that’s how I earned my lunch money,” happily explains Patrick.
Looking to the future Patrick hopes to create a platform to showcase the artwork of others.
“There’s no real career here in our community, so I’m hoping to create a place where other artists can come and display their work. We are trying with magazines and social networks. I can currently be found on Facebook.”
The sun was beginning to set and I didn’t have much time to get to our final artist for the day, Thembinkosi Earnest. With Bulelani’s help, we twisted and turned through the streets of Thembalethu, passing food stalls, children playing in the streets, and a quickly fading light.
We soon arrived at Thembinkosi’s house and much like Bulelani’s place, Thembinkosi’s room was small and surrounded by his various art pieces. Thembinkosi was approaching his art from a place of courage and conviction. “What I’m trying to do with my art is to convince the people that they must be strong in every situation they face.”
The strength that Thembinkosi was referring to wasn’t one’s typical idea of strength. Forget that toxic masculinity version of strength. Forget that stiff upper lip nonsense or that just suck it up mentality, no, Thembinkosi was referring to the strength of something much deeper. A type of strength that is being lost more and more, especially in men.
Thembinkosi points out a middle painting to me amongst a row of three paintings.“This one stands out to me a lot,” signals Thembinkosi.
Thembinkosi shows me a painting of a crying man with his finger over his mouth, indicating that his tears should be kept a secret.“Most of us used to say that men don’t cry, but that shouldn’t be. A man can cry. It feels sometimes like if you get caught crying, you won’t be seen as a man. That’s wrong.”
Thembinkosi showed me another piece of his art that was trying to bring some sanity in an otherwise insane world. The piece depicted one boy blindfolded with his mouth open, his teeth jagged. In the background lay a floating body in a Jesus pose with the hand of that body entering a floating eye.
“There’s a lot of gangsterism happening here in Thembalethu. Most of us just keep quiet about the violence, they pretend that nothing is happening. Others will just speak harmful words to them, they’re not supportive words, so they’re motivating them for more gangsterism. That’s why the teeth are sharp,” explains Thembinkosi.
“With the hand in the eye; you see I’m a church-going person. Each and everything we do in our lifetime, God is watching, so that hand that is inside the eye means that the eye is itching, so do what you want, but remember, God, is watching.”
Thembinkosi recognizes the power art has and its ability to bring change to the community. “All of my artworks are like that. I want to inspire change, to convince everyone, even the little ones so that when they grow up, they don’t think gangsterism is so cool.”
As with Bulelani and Patrick, Thembinkosi is hoping more people will get a chance to see his art. “We sometimes host some local exhibitions twice a month, usually on school holidays. I’d definitely like to do something bigger.”
What struck me most about these three artists was the ability to see past their own personal desire for profit. They paint not only because they thoroughly enjoy the craft, but they want to make a difference in their community.
Words by: Steven Lang