Africanicity — “This Is How We Do It!”
South African mouth artist, Heiron Joseph Nel, showcased his latest work in Zurich, Switzerland this summer — to a backdrop of booming global demand for contemporary African art and fashion.
ZURICH, Switzerland — Painting by the light of a large window, a small audience marvels at the familiar sight of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, to which Heiron Nel is applying his signature bold brushstrokes. He breaks into a relaxed, charismatic smile and cracks jokes, all the while working the canvas with the paintbrush in his mouth, “It’s the only way you can shut me up!” he says.
His eyes fix on a detailed scene of the Matterhorn, viewed from the Swiss ski village of Zermatt, that has captured a harmonious link between Swiss and South African mountain scenes. “That’s my baby!” he says, “I found solace [in that painting] because it reminded me of back home… the huts and the mountains resonated with me from my upbriging as a small boy.”
Childhood memories are a recurrent theme inspiring Nel’s work — from the small copper-mining town of Nababeep, outside Springbok on the Northern Cape, to the fishing village of Paternoster on the West Coast.
Lee Wyser, a South African fitness expert living in Zurich, was instrumental in organising Nel’s show in Switzerland. “When I saw his art” she says, “it was hard to believe that he had painted this with his mouth until I saw the videos. I realised that this young man is so talented — his work should be displayed world-wide.”
Nel’s motto “I’ll try at all times to be a happy guy” defies a devastating diving accident off the Western Cape of South Africa. Nel — at the time, a sporty, tennis-playing, teenager —sustained such injuries that he was paralysed from the neck down.
Remarkably, as his life changed beyond comprehension, he gradually regained control by picking up the paintbrush with his mouth and starting to paint — having never painted before. Within two years, he had nailed it. “Instead of going into a spin of being despondent,” he says, “I can grab my canvas and paint and express myself, it’s very therapeutic to me.”
Painting this way
A constant thread of vibrancy and life force runs throughout the 16 works, depicting Swiss and African scenes, that Nel, now 43, exhibited in Zurich. This vibrancy is palpable in the gently flowing turquoise hues of the Limmat river; or the shrewd gaze of a Rhinoceros imploring the observer to remember his species is on the verge of extinction.
Mouth painting is not challenge-free — pressure loosens the bottom teeth. “Whenever you put a brush in your mouth you feel like you want to spit it out” he admits. It’s tiring, and painful, on the jaws and neck. So Nel adapted his technique. He extended the paintbrushes by attaching wooden dowels to the ends. And then, to stem the stench of solvents — that bugbear of oil painting — he switched to water soluble oils, even though they were three times more expensive.
The first painting that Nel sold commercially was a donkey and cart, to a lawyer in Johannesburg. “When he ordered three more,” he says, “I decided ‘Ok this can be a career for me!’” Since that day — precisely, the 9th December 2016 — his work has been commissioned by corporations, private clients internationally, and forms part of the MC Saatchi Abel Collection.
A footprint in Europe for African art and fashion
Sales of contemporary African art are currently at an all-time high — over the last four years, Sotheby’s has broken more than 100 world records in the category. Two galleries from Luanda, Angola and Dakar, Senegal exhibited at Art Basel this June — a first for African countries. So why is African art so appealing?
“We bring something different to the table compared to your European modern artist,” explains Nel, “with our Africanacity … it appeals to a lot of people, especially Europeans.”
As Nel’s direction veers towards traditional African art, reflecting women from the countryside in traditional dress, African fashion is gaining considerable global attention and has been for some time. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is currently honouring the genre by exploring its influence and impact with a major exhibition, Africa Fashion; Chanel, the French fashion house, is set to show its next Métiers d’Art collection in Senegal this December.
“It all started with Mandela’s shirt,” Nel muses on the famed Desré Buirski-designed shirt dubbed Madiba (Mandela’s Xhosa clan). “He was going round the world… in these bright coloured shirts and I think that started a trend.
“And I’m sure if you ask any artist of any perspective, be it in fashion, be it in arts ‘what is your long-term goal as to having your footprint in Europe?’ It’s not to follow European trends, it’s to show Europe this is how we do it! To compete with European trends… and you’ll see it in my art.”
Nel made it his ‘mission’ to paint 20-times-grand slam-winning tennis champion, Roger Federer when he found out he was going to Switzerland, as he says: “Roger has been my idol ever since I can remember… a young Swiss player came along in the early 90’s — he played a backhand one-handed and it was the best on the tour — I had to paint Roger Federer!”
Positive force fields
Nel is impressed with Switzerland’s accessibility for those with physical challenges: “I’ve seen blind people go around Zurich on their own and I’m like ‘what, you don’t even have a dog with you? It’s got Braille [everywhere] — its top notch.”
His close circle of friends is from where Nel draws that positive energy, “which keeps me happy,” he says, “and which obviously leads to that smile that you’re talking about.”
To view more of Heiron Joseph Nel’s artwork visit: