If a contemporary image were painted of Nyame, Olorun, Leza, or Cagn- all African creator deities, I imagine this is how they would look. I continued to stare at the portrait, transfixed by the myriad of colors, feeling myself being transported through the cosmos, while pondering the caption, “The fire took everything…only the trees remained.” I wondered what the artist meant by that. But first, permit me to rewind things a bit and regale you with how I came across this image and how I eventually came to find the deeper meaning behind it.
Art is a medium with the ability to bring together a wide range of people regardless of age, sex, and race and in most cases economic background. If you add music, spirits and different venues to the mix it can become an exciting social event that routinely brings all people together, even in a city like Cape Town. First Thursdays, an evening art crawl between galleries and other cultural attractions in the city center seeks to do just that.
Alluding to the name of the event, First Thursdays takes place on the first Thursday of every month, showcasing exciting new artwork-sometimes with the opportunity to meet and chat with the artists. Not only are there artists of the paint, draw and digital variety, but also you’ll find galleries such as Youngblood on Bree Street, hosting musical and dance artists, such as the Cape Town Swing and Pebble Shakers who were launching the album, Echoes of Sophiatown.
Over the past year, I’ve had the chance to attend three First Thursdays and I’ve generally had an enjoyable experience- navigating through a diverse buzz of people on the streets of Church, Loop and Bree and others, popping into the various galleries and admiring exhibits ranging from pop art, photorealism, abstract, minimalism and the like. However, I can’t say that I was particularly moved by any of the artwork I saw, don’t get me wrong, most were well drawn or painted, and there was even colorful comic pop art exhibit at WorldArt gallery last year, with onomatopoeia words that made the images, well pop. But still, I wouldn’t have been terribly remiss if I had missed them and because of that, I wasn’t terribly keen on partaking in this past First Thursday. But, I happened to pass the Eclectica Contemporary gallery on Burg Street the Friday before and was immediately drawn to an electrifying portrait. It was of a woman, with almost metallic like wings for eyes, centered by a third “eye” that resembled a gun barrel, and an exposed head of what I interpreted to be cosmic circuitry. Further piquing my interest was the caption underneath, “SHE FLEW PAST ICARUS LIKE…” Before I could direct my legs to move, they were already taking a few steps back to the gate of the gallery and I was soon on the gallery floor.
This was not my first time at Eclectica, but all the other works of art I had seen before seemed to have evaporated from memory in comparison to what was now on display. I slowly walked the floor, taking in the richly colored and detailed paintings, admiring their intricacy, including one that reminded me of Grace Jones.
Eventually, I came to a painting that could only be described as the face of God or another celestial being that instantly commands your full attention. Bordered by deep clouds of fiery smoke, the man in the painting was a juxtaposition- a stern and rough demeanour, but at the same time there was a softness to be found in facial composition, the eyes mysterious yet inviting and in some ways omniscient. I initially thought he was bald, but as I looked deeper at the starry turquoise silhouette around his head, I saw an Afro filled with golden orbs, in an orbital rotation that formed a halo of sorts. A small golden crescent moon touched his left forehead while a small but full moon seemed to protrude from his right temple. Perched atop his head was a yellowed luminescent pantheon that could easily be seen as a crown.
It was this point that I thought to myself; this portrait could very well be a depiction of an African deity. I raised my phone to take some images to later share with someone close to my heart- a friend who’s a skilled artist himself that would undoubtedly enjoy the depth of the portrait. Perhaps this image kept my gaze longer than the others because it reminded me of us. Him, a fire sign was represented by the bold fiery flames that engulfed the arms and parts of the chest, while the star-speckled turquoise Afro that flared into a dark blue ocean of infinite cosmos could be seen as me, a water sign. Fire and water, opposing elements yet life can’t exist without the other, so they find a balance.
As I mentioned earlier, the artists will sometimes be present during the First Thursday event, and thankfully, Loyiso, the artist behind these works was to not only be present but would be doing a live painting. My halfhearted interest in partaking in First Thursday was now full-fledged, having been sparked by these portraits. So, a week later I would find myself in the gallery, about an hour and a half before the event was formally to begin so I could take a few more images without the crowds. I struck up a conversation with some of the ladies who worked at the gallery, namely Caitlin, and told them I am a blogger and was planning to do a piece on First Thursday. Caitlin mentioned that she would inform Loyiso that I was visiting and try to get me to meet with him. I thanked them and left to go browse a few of the other galleries that participate in the event.
Some notable gallery mentions are Smith, WorldArt, 99 Loop, AVA and my friend recommended we also visit Youngblood and I’m glad that we did! Located on Bree Street, it’s an impressive modern three storey arts and development centre, “that aims to be a platform for artists from all genres to start off from or continue in order to become self-sustainable.” Quite the mission statement, eh? I would stay that it lives up to it, as each floor offered different themes ranging from a Climate Change exhibit on the top floor with fresh plants to Echoes of Sophiatown, an exhibition by Cape Town Swing featuring detailed drawings of swing dancers in motion- an ode to the era of Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
Upon my return to Eclectica, I found Loyiso in conversation near the live painting he was working on. As I waited for him to finish, I took in the portrait centered in the middle of the gallery floor, one that depicted the face of a wizened man surrounded by a kaleidoscope of colors, his beard a rainbow that spread to his shoulders and up to the sides of his face. His eyes alone were enough to hold your gaze, a million plus stories just waiting to be told from them.
I eventually got a chance to speak with Loyiso as he sat back at his stool, palette in hand, dabbing colors on the face of the rainbow man. After introducing myself, I asked him about the concept of his work, specifically highlighting the god-like man surrounded by flames, which we happened to be opposite from. Just a week before I was ruminating on the meaning of the portrait, having been so moved by its depth of detail and now I was back in its presence, with its creator.
His response began with a chuckle, followed by “ I hate to do that, but I’m going to anyway.” For this engaging and spirited artist, his work is a type of savvy storytelling, messages dressed behind the surface of his electrifying paintings, ready to be examined by those ready for a deeper meaning. He loves “people viewing his work on a superficial level and then also on a very real level” and at one point mentioned Michael Jackson, whose music, when listened to on younger ears was alluring because of its melodic electricity and exciting “beats”, but when you take the time to actually understand the lyrics, you find such themes as social equality and self-empowerment. Loyiso appreciates the packaging of ideas in his work that people will pick up on later and be further moved, if not inspired by the artwork.
True to constructing works that tell a story within a story, his explanation of the caption “The fire took everything…only the trees remained”, could not have been more apt. The flames were representative of the hardships that people of color have had to go through, and still, continue to “navigate and survive” through as the paradigms of discrimination and inequality still permeate our society. He posed the question, “why are we still having these conversations? The tree then, the only things left after the fire took everything, is a “physical representation of endurance” and it’s made all the more real because trees are “rooted in the earth.”
A spark, however small is sometimes just what we need when we’re feeling apathetic towards an event, work, or just life in general. Allow yourself to be moved by the feeling, as I was when I saw Loyiso’s work. You never know where it will lead and whom you’ll meet. So, if you’re ever in Cape Town on the first Thursday of any given month, do yourself a favour and spend a few hours leisurely strolling the art scene and I hope you come across something that gives you a needed spark.