“All of them in a way have a subcontext to me. Each one has a few meanings to me. The walls are one of the biggest things to me, suburbia and being young and being stuck at home. Being bored and dreaming beyond those walls. Things being hidden from you, there are a lot of things being hidden from you behind a brick wall.”
INTERVIEW: RICK DE LA RAY
PHOTOGRAPHY: JACQUI VAN STADEN
Where do you feel your work fits into the South African art spectrum?
I don’t think it fits in somewhere very specific at all, I would rather say that it fits into my generation.
And what is your generation?
It’s the analog generation. I think that my work is in somewhat of a different spot to what is currently ‘the in thing’, but I also think that you can’t really pigeonhole my work in any way because I do work in five different styles. So each style of work would basically need five different explanations.
Coming from a much more illustrative and graffiti type of background, you seem to be moving towards a very abstract path at the moment, it’s minimalistic and completely breaking down what you have done before. Presenting it back to the viewer in a brand new environment. Where do you feel you are heading at the moment?
Well, there are a few reasons for my work changing, if you can put it that way. A big one would be that I would never try and stagnate in a single style. Since I started, I’ve never done pre-sketches in pencil, that’s why my name is Black Koki, I used to never do a pre-sketch in pencil. I would always draw straight with a Koki and whatever I did was what I did at the time. I would basically finish the work in one sitting. I never spend more than a day on anything. My work is in the moment and I do what I feel at a certain moment, not actually stress about the work. I think I have always kept that with my style. Say for instance I get a certain job in which requires a certain amount of paint, I would automatically finish that paint supply and the work from that little period would all fit together because of what I had at my disposal at that time.
Do you feel that this is a transitional period that is going on in your life right now. is it a planned path or do you feel it is just spontaneously pushing you towards a certain direction?
I think it’s a combination of all of that but it’s also definitely planned. For the last year and a half I have been thinking more about what I do and planning a bit more beforehand, even using pencil to go through the actual process. I am definitely in a massive transitional period in my life but I also feel that I have always been in that transition. It has basically never stopped and it’s needed for what I am doing.
You have also been dabbling in a bit of pottery and clay work recently – how did that come into the equation?
Well, I have always wanted to do 3D work, if I can put it that way. Things like toys, figurines and small ceramics. It has always been a big interest of mine. So at a stage last year I decided that I was going to invest in some classes when I had the means and that’s how I got into it. I went to class but the teacher did not actually teach me, I chose to use the equipment. That was a part of the process for me at the time. It was also a bit of a drive to get there so I got to spend some time with myself on the way there. It’s definitely a part of me now and it’s something that I enjoy doing.
It also seemed to have led Stan Engelbrecht to notice your work. The patterns in your work led to you doing some work for him on one of his bicycle frames. What was it like working with him?
Awesome! It has definitely been one of my top ten projects that I have done in my career so far. It’s a dream working with somebody that knows what they want, but who also allows so much freedom. Plus, he’s someone I respect and I actually think he does really relevant work.
There seems to be some recurring themes within your work, within this surrealist environment. Can you comment on this?
The surrealist environment I have created for the viewer is a big part of the ‘game’ that I am playing.
So you create these environments that have these repeating themes and characters. The dog, the diamond and there is always a set of hands. The eyes that appear out of nowhere and then there are the brick patterns. The S A paving (BRICKED WALLS) element slips in there. Do they have some sort of a subcontext
All of them in a way have a subcontext to me. Each one has a few meanings to me. The walls are one of the biggest things to me, suburbia and being young and being stuck at home. Being bored and dreaming beyond those walls. Things being hidden from you, there are a lot of things being hidden from you behind a brick wall. Before I drew dogs I had this specific way of drawing monkeys in Koki and I kept on developing them until I had about 40 to 50 monkeys all over my hometown. They were on walls and in bathrooms when I was about 15/16 years old. I actually got into tagging and graffiti when I was about 11 years old and we came to Cape Town. I was driving with my dad in the car, always being on the lookout for tags. The first one that I remember was MANTIS and I would stick out my head below bridges, knowingly looking for his tag. There are a lot meanings to the diamond, the things that you are led to believe that you should go for in life. Like the value to it and the history our country has had with them. Also, how stupid the association to something like a diamond can be. At the end of the day it’s just a little see-through stone and people put so much value to them. There is so much meaning attached to a diamond, yet at the end of the day it is not what we perceive it to be. It’s also the way that they are shaped and how it reflects light, so I have also been very intrigued by them. There is also the whole romantic element to them, a symbol that something is forever. The biggest thing I would say is the hands, they are like a carrot dangler holding the object and inviting you to move towards it. I have always really loved dogs and they all have different personalities. Dogs like to run free as soon as the gate opens, they want to get out of there and see the world in their own way.
There are also the omnipresent eyes and the triangular 3D nose that almost represents some kind of a keyhole?
That also has so many meanings. Such as the whole Illuminati thing, the government’s role and aspects like being watched on CCTV. Then there is also the feeling of being self-conscious and having this feeling that people are constantly watching you. Eyes always give away the truth – they are the windows to your soul, as they say.
Do you have any fond memories of growing up in Pretoria?
Just making missions really, doing everything you can to be around your friends and to be free.
Growing up ‘Afrikaans’ and looking back at the culture, the traditions and seeing how much of it is left now – what do you feel represents Afrikaans these days?
I have always loved a lot of the old Afrikaans aesthetic – the colours, the fonts, the architecture and the whole Africana aspect. I feel drawn to them in some way because I was always surrounded by them when I was younger. What I like about Afrikaans people is that there still is this camaraderie between us. It’s this ‘us against the world’ thing in a way. A lot of my English speaking friends have said to me that they would never learn Afrikaans because it was the language of the old oppressor and so on, but at the end of the day we are awesome people and I’m proud to be Afrikaans. We still have all these pre-conceived ideas attached to us, but we have ‘gees’ (soul) and we are very free-spirited.
How long have you actively been an artist for?
I would say since the year 2000 really. I was 16 when I was at Pro Arte and that’s where I developed my signature, but I have been actively working under the name Black Koki since 2004 so it’s more like 10 years now.
Your work has drastically changed over the last year or so, from more illustrative surrealist type of scenarios to very minimalistic abstract landscapes, but still using your classic recognisable colour palette. How do you find you approach your work these days?
I wouldn’t say I’m just focusing on that now, but I am focusing a lot of time into that style of work right now. I’m still doing small drawings as part of my process, but I decided to go for painting again. I have always wanted to move into being a fine artist and then we started Love & Hate and it turned out being a fashion and lifestyle brand. We did this poster for this exhibition, Eloise (X RAY EYES) and I, and after that there was just this flood of work coming in and it became a commercially viable thing. So I still use some of those techniques with a different visual outcome at the moment.
It seems that there was a huge visual leap between the two styles?
My drawings were focused a lot on getting commercial illustration work. However, still staying true to my certain style and technique that I have developed over the years. I think I just realised that it’s not really the way I want to keep on going. Put it this way, I have never really been an illustrator trying to do illustration. I am more of an artist that loves to draw. Being able to work according to a brief counts in my favour, but I have just found that I would rather be doing my own thing. Drawing takes a lot of time and there is a lot of emotion going into it. I just enjoy painting more because it feels free and it’s quicker in a way. I have also decided to work a lot bigger now, whereas before I would spend a lot of time on a small piece with a lot of detail in it, but now I enjoy putting that same amount of effort into something a lot bigger and simpler. So I think that is basically the just of it.
Do you still take on corporate or advertising jobs?
Depending on what it is, I would definitely take it on. While working with Eloise (as a team) on commercial jobs we would only take on jobs that we believed in and if it was something cool that we would enjoy doing. That is the kind of illustration that I want to do – having complete creative freedom. I mean the dream is to have complete control over a job at the end of the day.
Does the original Love & Hate (ELLO XRAY EYEZ, ELBOWGREASE, BLACK KOKI) still exist and work together as a collective, is the band still together so to speak?
The original band is still a crew but there may be a few different bands by now. I think that Love & Hate is something that will never stop. We have such a big history together, have done a million projects together and have been influenced by each other’s styles, we learnt a lot from each other. So in that sense it will never stop because you will always see some similarities within our work. Hein (Elbowgrease) was one of the founding members, but he has not been an active member since 2005. Now it’s just Eloise and I. We have basically narrowed our focus like we did in the beginning and instead of doing everything as a Love & Hate project we each do our own separate things. We have started producing tapestries and it’s been a really cool project, working with people that you would not really engage with under normal circumstances. We are still signed with a gallery in JHB as Love & Hate and we will still do shows together, but not as much collaboration work. We are still a painting crew and we go out on weekends, but we have just removed ‘work’ from our work and made it fun. So our main project at the moment is the tapestries and there is a shitload of them coming out soon.
What would you say is that common thread that still runs though your individual work?
It’s nostalgia I think for all of us, all three of us. We are still inspired by the some of the same things that inspired us when we were younger – bands, illustrators and artists. We were all inspired by the same things, only at different stages. I think those things are still showing through our work as individuals.
You are currently represented by KALASHNIKOVV in Johannesburg, what is it about the gallery and what they represent that appeals to you and makes you want to be a part of their movement?
As I said earlier we have always tried to work on projects that we believe in and also with friends and people that we admire. So we met Murray (MJ Turpin) at our first exhibition when we curated him into the show and we just became best of friends. It’s a dream to work with Murray who is a great friend and we have been through a lot together, so it makes sense for him to represent us. Even if I was approached by somebody bigger I would still go with Murray because I believe in what he does and I want to grow with him.
What do you feel places a specific value on a certain piece of art?
For me it has always been where it comes from, a lot of the work I like is not found in galleries. For instance, a piece of gang graffiti on a wall says a lot more to me than some piece in a gallery sometimes.
‘4/4 Down the Stairs’