The Quiet Violence of Happy’s Art

Johannesburg, South Africa: I have to be honest. When I first met  Sowetan Artist Happy Dhlame I thought how unfortunate it must be to have a name such as Happy – In English. Because you are Happy, people inherently expect you to be happy-go-lucky smiling all the time, worse still as Happy you often run into people like me, who enjoy making cheap jokes at your expense “so  Happy…. are you happy”?.  But   I’m sure the very worst might be that people are  shocked  when you are less than happy because well you are supposed to be happy. Okay I will stop.  I have never asked Happy how he was named but it seems there was some foresight in the combination of his names.  His last name is Dhlame, which when translated from isiZulu to English means, Violence; giving  balance to the play on word Happy.  See names ARE important, nobody wants to be called names. In the end the mixture produced an even-tempered artist, balanced, pleasant and  harmonious human being.  My parents should have thought of that.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Happy, in-fact, who has been nudging me

One of Happy Dhlame’s Layered Pieces

once, encouraging me more with a certain level of contained urgency to write  about  Black-Art(ist).  Something which must have been frustrating for him, since I never thought I could write, much less about Art.  He told me with concern that “not many are writing about artists like me, (independent), Art is still dominated and controlled  by people with capitalist interests. I am an “independent worker” so I understand.

In our last conversation I asked him, about his Art,  What art is to him casually at a Bohemian bar we frequent.   Then he was busy between projects, having just finished an exhibition at the  Funda Community Art College  Soweto.  Funda College is an institution for black artists, especially  those who walked through the dusty streets of Soweto.  It was formed in 1984, to provide alternative art education to ordinary  people, basically giving black Africans   access to an education in the visual arts, during the height of the Apartheid regimes’ state of Emergency.  I produced a  radio feature on it  a few years ago, while it was facing imminent closure, it barely survives today.  You will find it through google search but only as the venue for the department of transport. We are still blind to its legacy.  A number of the country’s internationally acclaimed artists (because that’s how we like to do it here in  Mzansi) received their art Education at the Funda Community College, most of them  painters, dancers, musicians.   Though Happy is always busy working on something, be it a collaboration with local and international artists here and abroad, there is little information available to the public about what he does.

He smiled, that disarming  smile which immediately makes me think of Bob Marley, there’s an uncanny resemblance between the two of  them,  Locks and all.   He clears his throat to answer my SoWhatsArt to you question,  long before I had this blog. ” Art  to me is like a calling” he says almost standing up, though there’s no soccer (football) match playing on the screen hovering over the mahogany bar.   Then he says something I didn’t expect  ” For me being an artist is like being a Sangoma (spiritual healer) it’s like I am going deep into the world of my ancestors”  he giggles a little at  the obvious surprise  on my face   ” But of course I don’t do things that spiritual healers  do, I do Art”  You know, he continues and opening up a little more ” Art saved my life,  I grew up in a poor household,  and my parents couldn’t afford to buy me these fashionable clothes, ama ALLSTARS  etc ” he points at his shirt and shoes ” And mina I like nice clothes, I got involved somehow you know,  started with  small petty crimes, stealing here and there, sometimes even cars” He says his eyes opening wide as if telling a five-year old a scary story. ‘ I was on my way to becoming a real gang-star tsotsi” He says.  I look at him again with a different eye this time, and for the first time I feel I get him, understand what he is about. Where he comes from. He has that street-smart-refinement quality  about him. So how did you get into art I probe,  ” I used to have this cousin of mine who liked to draw” he tells me ” he could draw pictures like photographs,  so I saw this and thought I  also want to do that .  So I started practicing, drawing my face over and over and over again, trying to get it right.  I wanted to learn how to draw like he did.  He told me about these art classes, and I started going, afterschool on week-ends. I started to draw and paint all over, sometimes even painting on my mother’s walls, on my clothes, until at some point I had to move out, because  she  did not understand. I moved out of the house when  I was 16 or 17, started living where I could paint, day and night, night and day.  It’s not an obvious fact about Happy, but his work-ethic is admirable.

I have been in his apartment many times , and sat transfixed  at this large dark image of a face and eyes that kept staring back at me.  On different occasions I sat trying  figure out what it was that I was looking at  and how I felt looking at it, without asking him about it.  It looked to me  like a mirage  of a face within a face within a face, it had an effect which reminded  me of the double lens symmetry of glass slabs on top of one another. It is only now  that he talks about how he started painting,  only now as I really listen to him do I see this painting I have been studying for so long.  It is Happy. His face, as clear as Day.

“My mother didn’t understand or support me” he continues ” It is only when I started winning Art awards that she started to pay attention,  and be a little supportive” he says now becoming more serious ” This art world is tough, so I don’t get involved in these things ( being seen at popular “art” events) I just do what I can,  and keep to myself. ” But Happy is not only happy painting layer upon layer on canvas,  he also enjoys performing Arts and has collaborated on more than on occasion with Sindy Samson, an actress, singer song-writer, poet, dancer whom I will introduce to you soon enough.

About his work in his own words:

“My work formulates new dreams about our surroundings. It tries to unmask existing codes within in mainstream art. I comment on issues that directly affect the local and the global society, be it sociopolitical values of the past and/or present. It revolves around abandoned buildings to archive our fading memories and the temporal existence of our built environment”.

“I have always been fascinated with intervening in space, and reforming the language and interiors of public spaces. These include degeneration and decomposing walls, floors and ceilings. I like to reveal layers of paint that once used to be solid but with time, are now dissipating. I am fascinated with the aesthetic values we attach to our surroundings when we paint walls, apply wall paper, use tiles and carpeting. The question is what lies beneath?”

“My painting seeks to capture the after effects of time in specific built environments. It compels the viewer to look afresh at our surroundings and to ask what do these structures signify? What convictions, hopes and fears lie beneath our built environments? I am commenting on how much time can render beauty meaningless”. – Happy Dhlame

He’s been preparing me for a while about his imminent departure, hinting, every now and then in conversation ” I will be working  from far away for a while, you must just write about art, not many black people are writing art right now,  just do it”  He says in time for me to catch a lift home.  But he is not the only one who has to work somewhere else in order to survive. He is an acclaimed Artists after all with a vast portfolio, and a reputation at International Galleries.   Tracey Rose, Johannes Phokela, Peter Makurube, Palesa Letlaka….  my heart breaks, they are just a few names in a  growing,  undocumented number  of  gifted South African Artists,   (spiritual healers) who have found temporary  homes elsewhere.  I wish there was a way of staying.

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