The Treachery of Images


The Belgian surrealist painter, René Magritte, he of the infamous “pipe” painting: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, “This is not a pipe”, in equally obtuse fashion, apparently said to someone asking him to explain what he meant by one of his works, “if could do that I wouldn’t need to paint them”.


Now Magritte may have said that, but I have found that in general artists love speaking about their work. I definitely do, but in my defence I love speaking about art, period. With my own I just have more insight into it, which is quite logical, and probably makes the talk more (I have been told this by people who have attended my lectures) heartfelt and passionate…and also informative, I suppose. So I use this in way of introducing the fact that in the past two weeks I have been interviewed twice about my exhibition at the artSPACE Gallery, Prick! Subverting the Stitch.















Above: Self-portrait 2013-3 am (2015).

The first one, and I was really humbled by this, was by a third year fine arts student from Rhodes University. She had an assignment which required her to review an exhibition and she chose mine! Me, being written about by a university student! An academic interest shown! The kind of thing an academic conceptual artist such as myself lives for! Here are the questions she asked and my answers:

1.) When/how did you start making art? Why do you make art?

I have always loved all the arts and I suppose I was what people called “an arty kid”. Despite this I never really had the confidence to fully commit to it, and as a boy in a tough neighbourhood I was never really encouraged to either. I suppose it was because I grew up in a low to low-middle class suburb and went to an all-boys school where art was not even offered to a matric level. As a result I honestly did not have much exposure to art whilst growing up apart from the odd craft class. I am reminded of something Scarlett Johansson’s character, Vicky or Cristina, I forget which, says in the Woody Allen movie: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).


“I just have to come face to face with the fact that I am not talented, you know. I can appreciate and I love music but … It’s sad, really. I feel like I have a lot to express and I’m not gifted.”


Awesome movie!


Sadly that is how I thought of myself: an art appreciator but never an art participator. As a result I walked around with this huge hole in my life that nothing I did seemed to fill. The truth is that you will always go back to what you love and I would repeatedly do this with art. I ran a décor and interior design company and then eventually ended up in the fashion industry which in turn eventually led to me getting into creating art and then exhibiting. As I acquired skills my confidence grew, and so did my thirst for all that was art, so I decided to go back to university and study art. I did this part-time through UNISA and am at the moment doing my masters through them. I also lecture for them now, mentoring the Kwazulu-Natal students.


As for why I create art, for me it is an integral part of who I am. I have a need to create and to communicate, to speak to people, through my visual language. The world can be a pretty grim place and this is because of the human race. Art reminds me that we are capable of more than just taking or destroying, it gives me hope. This is something I want to share with people. When I work on an exhibition I always have this in mind, so my goals are to entertain the viewer but also to educate and inform them.


2.) What is your preferred medium and why?

I am a conceptual artist so I tend to choose my medium based on what my theme is. Performance (my body) and embroidery (thread and stitch) appear in a lot of my exhibitions because my work often deals with gender issues. But if I had to select a medium purely based on the enjoyment of using it, it would have to be oil paints. I love the painterly, the joyful feeling of creating form and space on a 2-D surface is an experience like nothing else. Oils have their very own character and personality too, and the more you use them the more they become a part of who you are as an artist. They become friends you converse with or sometimes just hang-out with in your studio and on the canvas.


3.) Have you ever stepped out of your comfort zone and discovered a whole new genre of art? How did it turn out?

Two words: performance art! Way, way, way out of my comfort zone! I highly recommend every artist try it at least once. It is all about the body (un) comfortable, not only yours but your viewer’s too. For my third year practical requirements at UNISA, as the artist, swany, I explored the nature of my Gaze. I selected five performance artists to focus on: Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), Carolee Schneemann (1939), Mary Beth Edelson (1933), Hannah Wilkes (1940-1993) and Marina Abramovic (1946). Inspired by their work I chose to turn the gaze upon myself in an attempt to experience a little of what these women, and women in general, experience. The work consisted of an installation, visual works, a documented performance and the resultant video, and utilized the five selected feminist performance artists, and my presence as well as the audience to investigate, interrogate and comment on this relationship. I performed the exhibition piece, Gaze (2012), at artSPACE Durban. I shed my hair in it as a form of ritual cleansing and shame/grief/sacrifice before altars of each of the artists I admire.


Was it successful? On a personal level, and also as an artist, certainly. I grew tremendously from the experience. I learnt that our body is the very centre of our symbolic universe. It is a tiny model for humankind,  and simultaneously, a metaphor for the larger socio-political body. If we are capable of establishing all these connections in front of an audience, there is hope that they will recognize them in their own bodies. However, it is important to remember that the same thing that makes this possible also proves to be what makes performance art so very dangerous. There is very little remove between artist and audience/viewer. You have no control whatsoever over the audience/viewer. This is the challenge of performance art. This is what makes it so liberating and intoxicating but also what makes it so terrifying and hurtful. Often you get to experience both which I did.


From the Gaze exhibition I took what I had learnt and for my honours degree created Proof of Life (2013) which was extremely successful and for which I received distinctions from the university. If you go to there is a video of this work.


 4.) What, in your opinion is the hardest step in creating a masterpiece?

Ha ha, oh my lord! A masterpiece? Convincing yourself that you are capable of creating a masterpiece, I suppose?! Creating it and then convincing others that it is a masterpiece! What I hope you get from that is the one thing which I believe prevents an artist, or anyone for that matter, from creating: a fear of failure. You should never be afraid to fail. Failure means you are doing, it means you are learning, it means you are experiencing. Importantly it means you are in the game! Self-doubt is one of the biggest obstacles an artist faces.


5.) What inspires you? What inspired the idea behind Prick! Subverting the Stitch?

I was raised by women, notably my widowed mother, so the role models in my life have always been women. As an artist this remains the same.  I am a pro-feminist man and in my artwork I explore gender issues using embroidery and stitching to deconstruct certain societal perceptions: 1) that it is a craft associated with the feminine and not considered an art form, 2) the manner in which I create it which is associated with the masculine (in a factory, on production lines) as well as the non-creative, reproduction of banal images. Those things are generally at the centre of my work but if I am totally honest I am stimulated by virtually everything. As an artist you tend to see the world, and by “see” I mean “SEE”. In general the average person tends to just look at the world (and I realize I am being a little elitist here but it is what it is) while artists are continually questioning, deconstructing, imagining and re-imagining what they are seeing. I always warn my first year students that their year is going to make them incredibly uncomfortable because they are going to begin to see the world in a completely new way and it will never look the same again. So to return to your question, what inspired “Prick!”?, it was my exploration of embroidery, , challenging the traditional decorative connotations of embroidery and deliberately going against the assumed decorativeness of needle and thread.


6.) Is there an artwork that you are most proud of in the exhibition? Why?

Ah, tough question to ask any creative person…or parent for that matter. They are all your children and you love them all in different ways. I suppose if I had to choose one it would be “Merica, Fck Yeah! 2012”. It is probably my most personal piece (more so even then the self-portrait) in the exhibition. It took 3 years to complete and reflects my failed emigration (my green card fell through) to the USA in 2012 to become a full-time artist. Present are images/icons of my childhood saints as well as of my broken dreams. As usual I also question stereotypes and social constructs by using embroidery and stitching and the juxtaposition of images and media.

Below: Merica,  Fck Yeah! 2012 (2015)








The second interview by an arts journalist was for a regional newspaper. Here are the questions and my answers:


  1. What does your work in the exhibition, Prick! Subverting the Stitch represent/symbolise?

The works in this exhibition represent approximately 3 years of experimentations with embroidery, stitching and thread. These explorations of embroidery are also an exploration of gender, and reflect my continued struggle against societal constraints and prejudices. If we consider that masculinities and femininities are constructed by the societies we are part of then our behaviour and perceptions are therefore determined by them. I use specific images and instances from popular culture to illuminate this in an attempt to deconstruct these societal constricts. I also locate myself in this society in this exhibition in a self-portrait holding up a local newspaper. In particular I juxtapose these “pop” images with critical text to make clear the subversive messages they present and the behaviours they re-enforce.


  1. Can you tell me a bit more about your work in terms of the mediums you use?

As the title of the exhibition alludes to, my chief medium has been embroidery thread. I am a conceptual artist so I tend to choose my medium based on what my theme or concept is. Performance (my body) and embroidery (thread and stitch) appear in a lot of my exhibitions because my work often deals with gender issues. I challenge the traditional decorative connotations of embroidery deliberately going against the assumed decorativeness of needle and thread. There is a sense of brutal force applied to fabric that often feels like a violation, an attack. The viewer is made aware of the piercing of, the sheer trauma of the process. I achieve this by layering stitches over stitches and juxtapose this with areas where I purposefully leave them out so the fabric shows through, wound-like. I will provide you with examples to illustrate what I mean: my self-portrait work consists of 1200000 stitches (over 1 million), each of my “Playboy” works contains at least 60000 stitches. The sheer volume of stitches adds a weight and presence that the viewer is subconsciously, uncomfortably aware of, like a predator in long grass, sensed but not seen.



  1. In terms of your creative process, where do you get your ideas from?

I am a pro-feminist man so my ideas/concepts are generally generated by this. I have an intense interest in how we construct gender identities in our societies and how inequalities and subjugation are enforced with, ironically, very little force. We play the roles that society dictates to us. I focus this interest with an immense amount of research. I consider myself an academic conceptual artist therefore research is as important as making. Thus my creative process can almost be considered practise-based research. I am at present busy with my masters in visual arts which will be concerned with these societal constructs so the “Prick!” exhibition can almost be considered a forerunner or a practise run of the exhibition I have to present for that degree. So to get back to the question: the idea is sparked by gender issues and my awareness of them, informed and underpinned by the research I carry out to fully understand them, and then the visual is created through a rigorous making ritual and presented to the viewer in an effort to deconstruct and disrupt perceptions.



  1. What can audiences expect from attending the exhibition and viewing your work?

I quote Mariska Karasz’s, Adventure in Stitches (1949):  “Free yourself of any traditional concept of what embroidery should be …”


IMG_3454 (Small)



So what do you take from this? Well, when I look at my responses retrospectively I get to see kind of where I am in my career as an artist and that is kind of cool. This is why I enjoy speaking about my work (and yes, it is also narcissistic to a certain extent). Speaking about your work requires you to think critically about it, to review it and to provide your own response to it. This is the gift that the student and the journalist afforded me and this is why I am humbled and grateful when people have the interest and take the time to ask me questions about something I have created. So I always relish the challenge of questions asked about my work. Ask away, dear  viewer, ask away!


He For She – the Aftermath

There has been considerable talk generated by Emma Watson’s speech on feminism, both for and against, praising and criticising her. To a certain extent this is good because it is, firstly, at least getting people to speak about these issues and dialogue happening. However, I am saddened though when she is attacked by certain feminists themselves. I have, as I have mentioned, a genuine interest in these issues, so a lot of colleagues, fellow artists and friends have been sending me links and commentaries regarding this issue. Here some excerpts from an email I sent to a gallery owner in way of summing up my opinion.

(going to check out a site which the email described as: “A really succinct, accessible deconstruction of Emma Watson’s (essentially very problematic) UN WOMEN speech. Please don’t just read the title. I think this whole ‘He For She’ campaign is totally misguided, and it’s important to consider why”.

This was my response to the criticism aimed at Emma Watson by the writer on this site:

Hi, I read it and yes, the writer does make some valid points but what she does not acknowledge is that we all reflect a point of view that is partly composed of our upbringing, societal influences, race, sex and a whole myriad of other things. Just like her (the writer’s) point of view is formed in part by being black, American etc. I guarantee you that there will be a lot of “Third World” feminists who will take offence to the fact that a “First World” feminist claims to be speaking for them even if she is black. What I’m saying is that it is easy to tear someone down after the fact and use their race and social standing to do that. Hell, white males in power have been doing it for generations. How do you think they have stayed in power? I am sure guys like Trump love it when feminists start squabbling amongst each other because it takes their focus away from where it should be, on changing our societies. So yes, Emma’s speech is flawed and does not mention all the points that everyone would like mentioned but the fact that she chooses a side and asks others to, is a good thing and a step in the right direction. That’s my opinion anyway.

And that is my opinion, and it is important that we all have one. However, there is a difference between having an opinion and merely dismissing someone else’s or in fact, launching a personal attack on them in an attempt to discredit them. Yes, Emma is white and British (Western, First World) and from a privileged upbringing, and seriously wealthy because of her acting career. However, she does not claim to be speaking from any viewpoint other than her own. She has been criticized for that, and for the so-called “centralizing” of the oppressor (read white males) in her speech. I really don’t agree, but I suppose as a white male I would not. I feel, as I think Emma does, that males can help, and in fact, want to help, even need to help! Beyonce was even brought up in one argument!!! I quote: “Beyoncé, who, by the way, rarely even gets the benefit of the doubt from white feminists, let alone hailed as feminist queen of all things, when her feminist expressions are less than perfect”. Beyoncé is a very successful, strong, proud woman, no question! She however needs to, if she wants to be taken seriously as a feminist, sort out that misogynist husband of hers. As is generally the case, any cause should begin at home. It is at home where feminism should start. If there is mutual respect between husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister, this will be carried over into our societies and the work place and transformation will take place.

And that is my opinion!



He For She

“I don’t know if I am qualified to be here. All I know is that I care about this problem. And I want to make it better.”









These are the words of Emma Watson. Yes, the Harry Potter girl. Guess where? At the United Nations Headquarters in New York, where she called for more feminists in society and called on men to advocate gender equality! I hope I do not come across as smug or boastful when I say that in my case she is preaching to the converted! One has only to look at my body of work to see that I generally address and explore gender issues in my art making. But it did not start there, this need in me to fight for the end of the discrimination and exploitation of women and to voice my displeasure at it and my shame at being part of a group at the forefront of it; the male sex. It started with my mother, a strong, proud woman who raised two boys alone when her husband died when she was only 22. Being told I was to be “the man of the house” upon my father’s passing, the 5 or 6 year old me took this role very seriously. This would be my reality until I was “ritually” separated from her at 18 when I was conscripted into the South African Defence Force. I grew up reading Cosmo and  a myriad of other “women’s” magazines that my mother would buy weekly and monthly, taking the quizzes on how to please your man or how not to allow PMS to ruin your relationships. By all accounts I was a “mama’s boy” and the bullying and mockery I endured as a preteen were testament to this.

However, I found my masculinity in high school on the sportsfields where to the surprise of all I excelled, especially in rugby. The high school was an all boys school and thus removed from the female sex I had no other option but to compete and posture with the rest of the boys. I think they still found me odd because I found pleasure in the mere participation and inclusiveness of sports rather than dominating or subduing the opposition. Often I would quote Shakespeare or the line of a poem which would not really endear me to my teammates but they put up with me because I wasn’t a bad player/runner/teammate. I was forever the boy who had cried in class with the girls when the teacher read us Charlotte’s Web and Charlotte died. I know I am presenting this picture of a Jane Austen character but that was me, is still me, I guess. The point I am making is that through circumstance and personality I am a person that the young Miss Watson is calling for: a HeForShe! I have long pinned my colours to this cause and taken a lot of flack for it, from both sides of the fence sadly. But it is something I genuinely believe in so I was really pleased to hear a young woman speak about it on such a prestigious platform. 

This is her speech:

Today we are launching a campaign called “HeForShe.” I am reaching out to you because I need your help. We want to end gender inequality—and to do that we need everyone to be involved.

This is the first campaign of its kind at the UN: we want to try and galvanize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for gender equality. And we don’t just want to talk about it, but make sure it is tangible.

I was appointed six months ago and the more I have spoken about feminism the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop.

For the record, feminism by definition is: “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.”

I started questioning gender-based assumptions when at eight I was confused at being called “bossy,” because I wanted to direct the plays we would put on for our parents—but the boys were not.

When at 14 I started being sexualized by certain elements of the press.

When at 15 my girlfriends started dropping out of their sports teams because they didn’t want to appear “muscly.”

When at 18 my male friends were unable to express their feelings.

I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word.

Apparently I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men and, unattractive.

Why is the word such an uncomfortable one?

I am from Britain and think it is right that as a woman I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body. I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and decision-making of my country. I think it is right that socially I am afforded the same respect as men. But sadly I can say that there is no one country in the world where all women can expect to receive these rights.

No country in the world can yet say they have achieved gender equality.

These rights I consider to be human rights but I am one of the lucky ones. My life is a sheer privilege because my parents didn’t love me less because I was born a daughter. My school did not limit me because I was a girl. My mentors didn’t assume I would go less far because I might give birth to a child one day. These influencers were the gender equality ambassadors that made who I am today. They may not know it, but they are the inadvertent feminists who are. And we need more of those. And if you still hate the word—it is not the word that is important but the idea and the ambition behind it. Because not all women have been afforded the same rights that I have. In fact, statistically, very few have been.

In 1997, Hilary Clinton made a famous speech in Beijing about women’s rights. Sadly many of the things she wanted to change are still a reality today.

But what stood out for me the most was that only 30 per cent of her audience were male. How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?

Men—I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too.

Because to date, I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society despite my needing his presence as a child as much as my mother’s.

I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness unable to ask for help for fear it would make them look less “macho”—in fact in the UK suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20-49; eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality either.

We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.

If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.

Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong… It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum not as two opposing sets of ideals.

If we stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by what we are—we can all be freer and this is what HeForShe is about. It’s about freedom.

I want men to take up this mantle. So their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too—reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned and in doing so be a more true and complete version of themselves.

You might be thinking who is this Harry Potter girl? And what is she doing up on stage at the UN. It’s a good question and trust me I have been asking myself the same thing. I don’t know if I am qualified to be here. All I know is that I care about this problem. And I want to make it better.

And having seen what I’ve seen—and given the chance—I feel it is my duty to say something. English statesman Edmund Burke said: “All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for enough good men and women to do nothing.”

In my nervousness for this speech and in my moments of doubt I’ve told myself firmly—if not me, who, if not now, when. If you have similar doubts when opportunities are presented to you I hope those words might be helpful.

Because the reality is that if we do nothing it will take 75 years, or for me to be nearly a hundred before women can expect to be paid the same as men for the same work. 15.5 million girls will be married in the next 16 years as children. And at current rates it won’t be until 2086 before all rural African girls will be able to receive a secondary education.

If you believe in equality, you might be one of those inadvertent feminists I spoke of earlier.

And for this I applaud you.

We are struggling for a uniting word but the good news is we have a uniting movement. It is called HeForShe. I am inviting you to step forward, to be seen to speak up, To be the he for she. And to ask yourself if not me, who, if not now when.

Thank you.