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The life and times of ‘rock-star artist’ Beezy Bailey

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TALI FEINBERG

“It’s been a ten-year project, but it’s finally coming together,” says Bailey. He has been painting for almost four decades, and his work is as thrilling as his story and outlook on the world.

The book pays tribute to that life, with an introduction by musician Brian Eno and essays by art historian Richard Cork and New York Times culture writer Roslyn Sulcas.

Born in 1962 in Johannesburg as William James Sebastian Bailey, his moniker came about because his nanny always said he was “very busy (beezy!)”. He gladly took the nickname as his own, finding that it suited him better than his original names.

He has been described as a “rock-star artist”, not least because of his collaborative work with musos like Bowie, Eno, Dave Matthews, and Arno Carstens. His art has often gone beyond the canvas to include performance, installation, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, and ceramics. He has been a full-time artist for 30 years, with more than 20 one-man shows in London, Johannesburg, and Cape Town.

Being the grandson of Sir Abe Bailey – one of the original randlords – the younger Bailey literally had to “paint his way out of that reputation” to be taken seriously as an artist.

His father was Jim Bailey, whom he describes as “a visionary and an independent anarchist who went against the tide in pioneering a free press in this country. He gave me great insight into how the media and the world worked. He also wrote two books on the bronze age, which was his passion, and had a collection of African bronzes.”

The artist’s grandmother, Mary, was a pioneer of aviation, and his other grandfather was Dr Harry Epstein, whom he describes as “your original GP – gynae, surgeon, and shrink all rolled up in one. After he retired he set up a surgery in a garage and treated black people without charging them,” says Bailey.

“He was an example of a good Jew – not religious, but with an extraordinary set of values that definitely influenced me. I see my art as my ‘muti’ that can try to heal the world, so in a way I have inherited that healing legacy.”

This fascinating family history is explored in the book, and Bailey says that he’s proud of his Jewish heritage. “To be restless is in our DNA – it goes with the territory. There’s that joke of the Jewish SMS: ‘Start worrying now, details to follow’. As a creative person, this restlessness is a driving factor, and I can’t be afraid of it.”

Bailey has dyslexia, and didn’t thrive in “conventional academia”. “The only thing I was good at was drawing and painting,” he says. “Friends paid me to do their biology drawings, and in my free periods, I would draw, copying Matisse.”

He spent two years at art school in London, where he was the exception to the rule in that he actually sold his paintings, and didn’t want to fill the “poor artist” stereotype. He points out that this kind of training is lacking in today’s generation. With computers at our fingertips, many artists can’t actually draw!

Bailey came back to South Africa where he sold advertising for Drum magazine, but then went to New York where he found “an incredible creative energy”. There, he met Andy Warhol, “and realised I had to create art forever more”.

Ambitious and driven, he decided to make a career out of it. He knew he had to be a businessman if he wanted to be a successful artist. In fact, today, he says, many artists are businessmen first and artists second. But art has always been his priority: “If I didn’t paint, I would go mad! It’s like shutting a bird’s beak so they can’t sing… They would die just because they couldn’t sing. I would die if I couldn’t paint.”

Bailey points out that many musicians wanted to be painters, so he found fertile ground in collaborating with musicians. David Bowie was the one person on earth he wanted to meet, so when Bowie was in South Africa, it was a dream come true. The two spent hours painting together, and Bailey feels they had “a similar creative energy, and as a creative dynamo, his influence definitely rubbed off on me.”

Bailey has invented a number of alter egos, most famously “Joyce Ntobe”. He chose her because he was alarmed at the way black artists were treated with “kid gloves” after apartheid, even though many black artists had succeeded before in spite of discrimination.

“Joyce was a way to question that. Her work was about her life as a black domestic worker, and it was included as part of the permanent collection at the South African National Gallery. When it was revealed that she was my alter-ego, it caused a huge scandal – but surprisingly, no black people were upset!

“Joyce also opened a gateway for me to create conceptual installations, which I never would have done as Beezy. She’s on the backburner for now in an aggressively politically correct art world, but I think her most exciting work is still to come.”

Bailey says that “South Africa is still extraordinarily isolated” from the rest of the art world, and one of his biggest challenges was to develop himself as an artist here before launching his global art career.

“I’ve seen many people ‘wiped out’ by one moment of success. Success itself is a potent challenge,” he says.

In fact, his advice to young people is that success can come at a price. “We are now living in the era that Andy Warhol predicted, where everyone can have their fifteen minutes of fame thanks to social media. But it’s a snake pit out there. The stakes are high, and to go through that as a creative person is tough. You have to be a warrior of sorts. There is a violence and destructiveness in being creative – it’s all about getting up and falling down again.”

But in spite of it all, he says it is crucial that adults make time to be creative: “We could now even be entering an age of creativity. Thanks to computers, people will have more leisure time than ever before, and hopefully that will lead to a rise in creativity. We do art as children and then we stop, but it is vital that people paint. No one ever died from making art.”

  • Bailey’s book launches on 6 April at the Everard Read gallery in Johannesburg and 17 April at the Everard Read gallery in Cape Town.

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