Some Pepper With That? Afrika Rea Bolela

Wesley Pepper.
Wesley Pepper.

Johannesburg, South Africa. The last time I met a guy at a McDonald’s establishment was in circa 2001, then I was a virgin and a journalism student in the dark really about my purpose in life.  He was my first real boyfriend and everyone in the class knew how besotted I was with him.  Perhaps it was his cold ocean blue eyes, his gait, his smile or the way his blonde hair seemed permanently peppered with dandruff, or maybe it was the fact that I seemed to think everyone wanted to be his girlfriend, whatever the reason I felt lucky to be the chosen one.   He asked me out for coffee after class, an invitation I welcomed since I couldn’t afford any of MacDonald’s offerings and additionally it would mean spending some time with him. He was really serious s and I wondered what was on his mind. “It’s not working” he said to me. “What is not working?” I asked naively.  “us” he said trying really hard not to break my heart. I was considered to be a “sweet” girl.  “What do you mean?” I asked confused. “Well will you come to my grandparent’s house? They are going away for two weeks while we’re on holiday will you come and visit me? hang out?” he asked  an  impossible question. “You know I can’t” I said trying to think of what excuse I could give my parents for sleeping over at a stranger’s place.  I couldn’t  think of one and actually I was not  yet ready to do the deed so I had to accept  that our four weeks of  stolen kisses by the bridge on my way to catch a taxi home or the stolen kisses, looks and smiles  before, during and after lectures was basically over.  “Yeah so, it’s not going to work out … please don’t cry” he said looking around as if someone could hear the sound of my tears dripping into my now cold coffee. “It’s not you it’s me” He said growing more concerned, but  it proved hard to form words  between the warm vapour  foaming behind my ears and throat. “Do you want a napkin?” he asked.  A napkin? I repeated … wondering why he would offer me a napkin in public – images of a baby in a napkin crying from some mysterious irritation flooded my mind. I looked up.  “Oh a serviette” I said taking it and smiling at the tragic comedy of it all.

These were the emotions that suddenly welled up inside me as I sat opposite artist and writer Wesley Pepper at a 24hr  McDonald’s on Gandhi square, in downtown Johannesburg.  He along with  about 40 artists formed a fine artist collective, late last year  to take full control of their own work, and he wanted to tell me all about it.  The collective must be working – the group will be exhibiting their work at Constitutional Hill on the 11 of April. “I think that’s my purpose” said Pepper who has had an 8 year career in  the  publishing industry, himself a published author with three books under his name.  In 2004 he established his own publishing company called ” Reunited Siblings” in response to a r growing demand for alternative creative outlets for  writers artists, you name it. “I never wondered what I would do with my life, I always knew that I would be in the arts and that the work I would do would be good’ he said. “Getting artists together  in a room and working on a collective creative project that’s my purpose.”

The exhibition titled: Afrika Rea Bolela  ( literal  English translation  Africa We are Talking) is the brain child of Pepper and his co-curator collaborator artist Molefi Thwala, whose work he has the utmost respect for.   “I’ve always wanted to collaborate with Molefi, I like how he works conceptually”. The theme for the exhibition is not so light-hearted  though.  It’s about that hefty document which forms the bedrock of South Africa’s constitution: The bill of rights. “My work is always political, I have to be political” he said smiling at his own genius. “We really got a good deal at the constitutional court to showcase our work” his smile now widening.

Pepper is inspired by life, people and music but street art  is what gets him going and the exhibition draws a lot of  inspiration from street  art.   “We live in a world of short attention spans, twitter, face book  etc  and I think street art is  most  effective in getting people’s attention or  whatever message you want across” He says his face suddenly lightening up.  “In a given day you are guaranteed at least that 600 people will see your work and a few might think about it, but it will touch at least one person’s life”. His statement brought to mind  quote by one of my great loves  American writer James Baldwin  when he said “You write in order to change the world…if you alter, even by a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it” I live by his words.

Pepper is surprisingly very honest about the works. “I expected  the work to be more daring, more experimental “ He said adding that he understands “Because  we get used to how we do things and get settled into our comfort zones and often artists don’t understand the dynamics of evolving “He said removing an invisible stain on the table with his thumb and index finger.  “If all the black artists would decide to things for themselves the industry would get a serious awakening, a serious wake-up call”.  “It’s very cool “ he  continued as if realizing for the first time that I was sitting in front of him “ It’s very cool to see something which was just an idea come to life, becoming real, it’s very cool and I think we’re on the right track. We just need someone with a big wallet”.

As we parted outside Macdonald’s  into our separate city boxes, yellow morning sun-rays beamed through concrete pillars, catching light and glimmering on green leaves, glass, Perspex walls, the city was alive and I was alive in it.  So you can imagine my surprise when I caught a glimpse of that sweet girl smiling back at me and found that though a little wiser, she  had not lost her innocence after all.

Afrika Rea Bolela:  A mixed media exhibition is  on at the Constitutional Court (ConHill)t, Johannesburg on the 11 of April.

Catch it if you can.

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