This article first appeared in The Times on 12 April, 2017
When the lights go out at night at the Drakenstein Correctional Services (DCS) facility in Paarl, inmate Joseph Buys moves into the bathroom of his communal cell to continue painting under the flickering fluorescent tubes. Making art has become a crucial component of his life behind bars and he snatches time whenever possible to sate his creative passion.
Since the age of 14, Buys has clashed with the law. From knocking heads with the security forces during apartheid, to doing hard time for petty crime and murder, he has bounced between reformatories and high security facilities. As a remnant of the ‘lost generation’ of post apartheid South Africa, he regrets having forfeited the opportunity to have a formal education, but fast forward 41 years, and he finds himself as an art student at the excellent age of 55, making up for lost time.
The teacher, the technique and the triumph
Buys credits visual artist Marieke Kruger for his personal transformation through art. Kruger started teaching at the DCS in 2015, offering workshops in drawing, painting and more complex disciplines that include lino and dry point etchings. The latter are made using thick transparency sheets onto which images are scratched out with a sharp needle to produce the desired line mark effects. After only two years, the men in Marieke’s class have advanced to such an extent that their work, including the aforementioned disciplines, has reached exhibition status. Aside from being shown last year at the Sasol Art Museum at Stellenbosch University, their work is now showcased at art.it.is gallery in Salt River, Cape Town. This particular body of work, submitted by twelve DCS students, hangs alongside pieces by Kruger herself, as well as Pillip Heenap and Philip Pieroth. Entitled Identity, it a collection made up entirely of self-portraits that explore the relationship between the inner self and incarceration. Many inmates regard drawing a representation of oneself as a way to validate their existence and find the process to be therapeutic. There is no pressure to create a masterpiece although there is a desire to excel. In a quiet safe space conducive to introspection and devoid of negativity, they are able to transpose, with tremendous effort and perseverance, a reflection of themselves, their very real interpretations of what lies within, and seeing the end result elicits a deep emotional responses. Observing the group at art.it.is when they stood before their framed works, Kruger says,“Some weep when seeing their framed art presented in a public space for the first time. To them, art has enabled them to regain their humanity…they feel respected as citizens and as people.”
Marieke’s positive approach and the consistent support received from Bertie Fourie, the DCS Section Head for Sport, Recreation and Arts and Culture, fuels dedication and a pursuit of excellence. Kruger is all about sustainability, intent on developing talent and achieving required high standards so that once back in society, Joseph Buys and his contemporaries can make a living out of their art. A career as a professional artist remains one of the few that is not tainted by a rap sheet.
It has been proved time and again that prisoners who participate in any of the art genres have better self esteem, are more motivated, disciplined, and less prone to violent behaviour. Concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, in his book ‘The Art of Manliness’, mentions how crucial it is for inmates to have a sense of purpose when trying to survive a ‘naked existence’. For someone who is incarcerated for years on end, having a creative outlet in grim circumstances offers this and provides an end goal that in turn gives hope.
When discussing the sketches he made on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela, who spent his last prison years at the DCS when it was still known as Victor Verster, said, “I have attempted to colour the island sketches in ways that reflect the positive light in which I view it….even the most fantastic dreams can be achieved if we are prepared to endure life’s challenges.”
Identity, will be exhibited at art.it.is at 76 Albert Road in Woodstock until 30 April 2017. To purchase, please enquire via 0836357744.