Art

Salt artist uses the everyday seasoning to 'paint' incredible portraits

While spilled salt is supposedly bad luck, Percy Maimela's careful constructions are pure gold

19 December 2021 - 00:00 By Sibusiso Mkwanazi
Percy Maimela with one of his salt paintings.
Percy Maimela with one of his salt paintings.
Image: Percy Maimela

Apparently, if you spill salt it is bad luck. To remedy your misfortune, you should throw salt over your left shoulder with your right hand. Johannesburg-based artist Percy Maimela did no such thing when he spilt salt and his luck has been nothing but good.

Maimela worked for years as a merchandiser at one of SA’s supermarket chains. While on break one day, he spilt some salt in the storeroom. Instead of blinding the devil by throwing some over his shoulder, he liked the contrast of the white salt against the dark grey floor. Little did he know that would be the start of great luck in his creative career.

“It was in 2014 when that bag of spilt salt attracted my eye. I played around with it and saw I was getting some intriguing images. I then googled a photo of a dreadlocked guy and used the salt to create a portrait of him. When I finished, some colleagues walked in and were so impressed that it ended with me resigning to pursue a career as an artist who uses salt as a medium,” says the 35-year-old, who has created salt portraits of Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela and a host of others.

Mother Teresa’s image captured in salt.
Mother Teresa’s image captured in salt.
Image: Percy Maimela

Unlike more orthodox mediums such as ink, pencil, chalk and oil, salt presents its own set of pros and cons, something Maimela is faced with on a daily basis.

“My initial idea for the salt art was that it would never end up as permanent pieces. I viewed them as part of what I referred to as ‘life and death’ scenarios. While creating the pieces, I would give birth to a newborn and everyone would be jovial. But this was followed by the planned destruction of the artwork, which was never welcomed by anyone as they felt it was like losing a loved one. After increasing public pressure to make the works permanent, I came up with a solution that combines salt and sand, allowing the art to last forever,” he says.

Maimela is part of a creative group who live and work at August House, a 1940s building in Doornfontein that houses more than 50 pan-African artists who have elevated contemporary African art. Successful artists such as Nelson Makamo, Mary Sibanda, Kudzanai Chiurai and others have all occupied studios here.

Paintings made using salt by the inimitable Percy Maimela.
Paintings made using salt by the inimitable Percy Maimela.
Image: Percy Maimela

“Moving to August House was the catalyst I needed. Before that I had no idea I could make a living from being an artist. As a young boy, I would always pick up pencils, pens or crayons and draw something. While the other boys were playing soccer, I would be perfecting my technique or experimenting with different mediums. It was only when I met up with my peers at August House that I realised I could make a living from my talents,” he says.

In addition to sharpening his artistic skills at his studio, Maimela also learnt the art of business, something he would need to lean on heavily at the beginning of 2020. This was when the Covid pandemic struck, and  people were unable to buy his unique art. But in true Maimela form, his luck actually improved during lockdown.

“At first lockdown was quite tough, but it taught me to reinvent myself as an artist and to push for a better version of myself. If not for lockdown, I would not have taken control of my own business. When the orders and commissions dried up during lockdown, I cultivated my own client base and  dealt directly with them, knowing their needs first-hand.

“Since I became hands-on, I know exactly who buys and collects my art, which part of the world they come from and what appeals to them. Before lockdown these aspects of the business were taken care of by curators and galleries. Now I am involved in every part of the process, from the conception of an idea, to understanding a collector, to shipping and delivering a piece. I have found great luck from lockdown,” he says.

A salt painting of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
A salt painting of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Image: Percy Maimela

During the pandemic, art lovers have been restricted from visiting exhibitions, museums, galleries and other public viewing platforms. They had no choice but to turn to digital means such as social media, websites, video platforms and streaming services to fulfil their insatiable thirst for all things creative.

“All of sudden, I had to learn about digital platforms. I had to add technical skills to what I was doing. On my videos I became an entertainer, narrator, historian, storyteller, short-filmmaker, director, and even a motivational speaker for the depressed, as the audience was stuck at home,”  says Maimela.

With the pandemic far from over, Maimela is constantly looking for ways to reinvent himself, such as venturing into new mediums. He has become so adept at effortlessly morphing that he set a Guinness World Record by creating the largest coffee sketch in the world. He created a 5x5m portrait of DJ Black Coffee out of ground coffee. He hopes to set and break more records and to show that with few resources and a little bit of luck one can attain their dreams.


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