“In South Africa, there’s a very conservative approach to galleries, and who shows in galleries, and what to show in galleries. People are scared to be leaders here. The cost of taking a risk is high,” says audiovisual multidisciplinarian Breeze Yoko, speaking down the line from Cape Town.
He’s responding to a question about why he’s not signed to a gallery yet. Looking at his contemporaries – Nelson Makamo, Dineo Seshee Bopape, Mary Sibande, Dathini Mzayiya – it doesn’t make sense why someone who has contributed so much of his time and creativity, and given so much love to various art spaces over the years, is still so commercially underappreciated.
“The reason I haven’t gone that route is because I haven’t really found somebody who’ll be, like, okay cool, we got you. Let’s do this the way that you see it.”
This, he says, has been “a blessing in disguise”.
“Now it’s also allowing me to set up a situation like that [for other artists].”
Through his travels, the street artist, videographer, emcee, illustrator and South African hip-hop gem – he’s a member of the groundbreaking Groundworks crew, alongside the likes of Hueman (RIP), Ben Sharpa (RIP), Krook’d the Warmonga, Hymphatic Thabs and Snazz D – feels that he’s made enough connections and knows enough people who can unlock the infamous door to art nirvana to make that situation pop.
He cites his recent residency in Paris, France, as a period of substantial growth. While he had been to various European cities, including Paris, several times before, it wasn’t until his six-month stay there last year that he had the opportunity to really explore the urban art underbelly on the continent that colonised much of the world.
“I’ve seen that there is a market for people who practice the [art forms] that I practice and it’s sellable as well. People are making bank out there, son!”
Urban art festival
Breeze has been putting up since the 1990s, when doing throw-ups on railway tracks was still a fundamental part of graffiti culture. He got his start in Cape Town – he’s a product of the streets of Gugulethu’s Native Yards – before rap and other things landed him in Joburg, where he ran with the Transit Killaz (TK) heavy-hitters.
Most of what gets painted on walls, especially in inner-city and downtown Joburg, isn’t reflective of the environment. While some murals are technically proficient and sometimes beautiful to look at, they contribute little to making sense of the world. Breeze’s view is that artists too are a reflection of what mainstream media feeds them.
“You can’t blame [the] kids. The environment that has been set is that you fit in or you ship out. We’re also chasing trends. You watch TV, there’s no celebration of self. You listen to [the] radio, there’s no celebration of self. You look around, there’s nothing that really says that it’s okay to be you. So you’re constantly trying to fit into trends,” he says.
Ubuhle Bendalo, then, is a platform to realise these overlooked worlds. The two-week urban art festival comprises workshops, sketch battles and large-scale murals.
Central to its realisation has been the spirit of collaboration, which was re-enforced for Breeze during his time in Paris when he was invited to conceptualise and develop a graphic novel. He says Paris “put into perspective” what he needed to do so that something of the festival’s magnitude could be achieved.
“I had gone in with one idea of how I thought things would work out. I thought I’d be in and out, and then come back [home] with a graphic novel. But as soon as I got there – I was linking up with people who have experience in that shit – and the first thing they said to me was, ‘what, you gonna do a graphic novel in six months? Ha, ha, ha!’”
Breeze approaches his craft with the obsession of a scholar. He is conversant with the global art movement to the point where he is willing to acknowledge that it has been weaponised to rob Africans of their notions of self.
He points out that some international artists – two France-based artists, Doudou Style and Sitou Matthia, will be joining the festival – are themselves a product of representations of Africa promoted by the media and therefore likely to present images that don’t reflect our reality.
Collaboration with local artists will go a long way towards helping out. Rasik Green is in the line-up, as is Breeze, who decided to fill in for Cape Town-based pressure control priestess Nardstar, who had to pull out because of prior commitments.
“I had to get local artists to get involved on the same level, not to be assistants [to international artists], not to be subsidiary to them. And also for them to get the same dough. Nobody’s getting paid for this, but they’re getting artist’s fees.”
Getting people with means interested has proven to be a tough mission and is part of the reason why our long-scheduled conversation kept getting delayed.
Women to ‘represent themselves’
“The world of walls is very male-dominated. I understand why it was that in the beginning. This was illegal, running at night might not have been desirable for a woman in these dangerous, rapey and murderous hours. But shit is cool now, it’s getting there. You can paint during the day. I feel that we need more women to represent themselves, instead of us painting women on Women’s Day. We can never represent them. They are here to represent themselves.”
Doudou Style, with whom Breeze collaborated on a mural in France, will be conducting a workshop aimed at women interested in getting involved in street art. Makamo has agreed to sponsor the prize for the sketch battle in which he’ll take part, although he won’t be eligible for the prize.
“Ubuhle Bendalo has seen a gap. When you are interested in this kind of art form, you are either forced to go into advertising, graphic design, or you have to switch it up and go do fine art. Then you have to fit into these norms of art. There isn’t a place that rewards you and encourages you to grow.”
Breeze is an urban legend and a visionary of our time, a guiding light from whom underground kids have drawn and continue to draw inspiration. To see cats like him offer a solutions-based approach to urban art by opening lanes for others is both refreshing and confirmation that dreams are valid, irrespective of what form they take or on which platform they’re presented.
The Ubuhle Bendalo artist residency is presented in conjunction with IFAS and takes place from 16 to 30 March in Johannesburg.