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Lighting the knights: Bailey's breeze of change blows north

Sue de Groot talks to one of SA’s most prolific and interesting artists, who is currently bowling over the English aristocracy with his dreamlike paintings and surreal sculptures

15 May 2022 - 00:00
Beezy Bailey with a sculpture in the grounds of Boughton Hall, part of his "Let There Be Light" exhibition. The artist says: “I used banana leaves from my garden for the wings, signature high heels to symbolise the human element, spindly little legs, and it has a circular stainless steel base, so if you stand next to it and look down, it feels as if the angel is rising out of the earth at the same time as falling into the earth.”
Beezy Bailey with a sculpture in the grounds of Boughton Hall, part of his "Let There Be Light" exhibition. The artist says: “I used banana leaves from my garden for the wings, signature high heels to symbolise the human element, spindly little legs, and it has a circular stainless steel base, so if you stand next to it and look down, it feels as if the angel is rising out of the earth at the same time as falling into the earth.”
Image: Dan Weill

South African artist Beezy Bailey, real name William James Sebastian Bailey, has been known by his nickname ever since he was an overly busy (“beezy”) small child. Even in adulthood, he always feels the need to work on many things at once. 

As for the output, “some works rely on chance and some are mistakes that end up working”, he says. 

Bailey, speaking via Zoom from his London flat, is in the UK for two mega exhibitions of his sculptures and paintings, being held simultaneously at the Everard Read gallery in Chelsea and at Boughton House, a stately home in Northamptonshire.

It is some time since he has exhibited so broadly. In trying to describe where the new work fits into his lifetime’s oeuvre, he says: “I’m a peddler of beauty. That’s my job. It might sound a bit corny, but I try to find light and magic in my work. This has been an ongoing theme throughout my life.”

Beezy Bailey.
Beezy Bailey.
Image: Michael Hall

The dual exhibition, called “Let There Be Light”, is both a continuation of and in some ways a departure from Bailey’s lifelong preoccupations.

With a self-deprecating giggle, Bailey says the obsession with light,  magic and beauty has been part of his makeup since he was born.

“When I was five I went to nursery school, and when they asked me what my name was I said, ‘My name is Beezy Dream-Come-True’. The funny thing is that even now I refer to my working process as a ‘dream reality’.”

The surrealists used dreams in their work “but that was kind of Freudian, intellectually based, more like illustrations of dreams”, he says.

“In my case I find that the work process is very similar to the dreaming process, in that you have dreams that encompass abstract ideas — it might be a flower, or a tractor, or your grandmother. In a dream, these weird things come together and your grandmother is driving a tractor through a field of flowers. It seems mad, but that comes together from these subconscious thoughts that play through your mind when you’re dreaming.”

I always just make the marks and then I see images in the marks — I call it ‘cloud painting’ — and I start to accentuate whatever it might be: a hand, a flower, a house

Like the poet William Butler Yeats and artists Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, Bailey does not work with a preconception when he paints.

“I always just make the marks and then I see images in the marks — I call it ‘cloud painting’ — and I start to accentuate whatever it might be: a hand, a flower, a house.”

In this way his paintings become a story, part of which is told by the viewer’s own sensibilities.

“Art-making for me is a form of meditation. My daughter Saskia says I have adult ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] — I agree with her — and that only painting calms down my energy levels. She will sometimes say: ‘Dad, enough now. Just go and paint.’”

With another belly laugh, Bailey says the therapist he saw for a few years told him that if he didn’t paint he would probably be clinically insane.

He doesn’t set himself on any genius rung above nonpainting ordinary mortals. “Accessing art through the subconscious is like being a conduit, and we are all capable of being this conduit. I don’t think it’s a unique thing, but I think that too often we unfortunately switch off our creative sides.”

As scion of Jim Bailey, founder of Drum magazine and the first supporter of the black press in SA, Bailey had a lot to live up to, but was not fully aware of this legacy until he was older.

“It was a wonderful childhood, although as I grew up I realised how dysfunctional it actually was.”

The "Earth Heavenly dinner" depicts the ghostly form of Queen Elizabeth I against a background of the bounty of colonialism. Picture: Michael Hall
The "Earth Heavenly dinner" depicts the ghostly form of Queen Elizabeth I against a background of the bounty of colonialism. Picture: Michael Hall
Image: Michael Hall

Before the family moved to a farm in Limpopo, they lived in Johannesburg, where Beezy was sent to “special schools” because he had dyslexia.

“I went with my grandmother to the one school for an interview, and there were kids kicking a box around, and I thought: this is not normal; a box is square, you can’t kick it around like a ball, you’re mad, why have I been brought to this mad school?”

In later life the iconoclastic artist has proven his ability, mad or not, to make shapes fit whatever the observer’s eye sees.

He was later tutored at home by a young Marilyn Hattingh, who became the doyenne of Style magazine and at the time was married to the Baileys’ farm manager.

“She was from Germiston and said she wanted to be a journalist, so for a while I thought that all journalists came from Germiston.”

This was a turning point for Bailey. “Marilyn allowed me to be who I was, because I certainly wasn’t an academic kid. I used to draw pictures for stories and write elaborate letters to God. I had a whole thing going and it was wonderful to be able to explore that creative side.”

A few years later he was sent to a posh boarding school in Johannesburg, which he loathed.

It has been a historic voyage of discovery, as well as touching on the legacy of colonialism, with its trail of fire. While building things they were also destroying things

“The only thing I could always do was art. Then I was lucky enough to be transferred to Woodmead” — the pioneering Johannesburg school known for its open-minded approach to education —  “and although I struggled academically, I started selling my first drawings, for other pupils’ biology projects.”

His father Jim was not particularly engaged during Bailey’s childhood.

“He was very distant. My mother kept the whole Drum world away from us on the farm. When I was older it became really significant in my life but as a child Jim was hardly ever there, and when he was there he was in his own world, writing books about the Bronze Age. I think what kept me from going nuts was art lessons; it was like a dream escape every Wednesday evening to go and start really painting properly.

“When my father saw what I was doing he said I should become an artist, and I said no, I wanted to make money. People don’t get this, now that my family is reputed to have money, but at that age I didn’t realise it. My father drove this clapped-out Toyota and dressed like a tramp and we lived this very frugal, bohemian life on the farm. I wanted to have a Rolls-Royce, so I said, sorry, I won’t become an artist because they don’t make enough money.”

This changed after Bailey took a job selling advertising at Drum magazine, mostly to please his father, where he gained insight into the breadth of the media empire Jim had established.

Beezy Bailey in front of one half of his "Ebony and Ivory" diptych, in which a silk-screened "white queen" looks suspiciously at her darker twin.
Beezy Bailey in front of one half of his "Ebony and Ivory" diptych, in which a silk-screened "white queen" looks suspiciously at her darker twin.
Image: Dan Weill

He could have taken over from his dad, but this was not to be. While visiting friends in New York, Bailey was introduced to Andy Warhol, who was ferocious in his approval of the young South African’s recent paintings. Bailey was tempted to remain in the US and become part of the 1980s art explosion, but he chose instead to go to art school in London and learn how to draw.

“I would not be talking to you now if I hadn’t made that decision,” he says. “I honestly don’t think I would have survived those wild days in New York.”

Instead he had what he describes as a “Eurocentric art education” while spending the holiday months at home in SA being tutored by sculptor Nelson Mukhuba in Venda.

“I inhabit at least two worlds, and they are all linked,” he says.

Among the paintings displayed at Boughton House are some with abstract African backgrounds featuring the ghostly figures of English kings and queens of old.

This was partly to bring the concept of colonialism into a collection focusing on what humans have done to the world, aided by Bailey’s access to historic paintings owned by the Duke of Buccleuch, a descendant of King Henry VIII, who owns Boughton House.

Bailey’s painting, The Earth Heavenly Dinner, incorporates the fragile outline of Queen Elizabeth I, reproduced from the original painting hanging in the house where his own works are being shown.

This painting, "The Last Birds in Paradise had no echo" is Bailey's favourite in his current exhibition. He says it "almost painted itself".
This painting, "The Last Birds in Paradise had no echo" is Bailey's favourite in his current exhibition. He says it "almost painted itself".
Image: Michael Hall

There is also a diptych, Ebony and Ivory, silk-screened to make it appear as though the “white” queen is looking suspiciously at the “black” queen.

“It has been a historic voyage of discovery, as well as touching on the legacy of colonialism, with its trail of fire. While building things they were also destroying things,” Bailey says.

His favourite piece in the current exhibition is a painting called The Last Birds Had No Echo. “It’s three birds in a very black background, almost cavelike, with an almost jungly kind of feel. I like this painting because it’s one of those that paint themselves.”

Beezy Bailey demonstrates his technique of "cloud painting", in which an old canvas is dragged across the beginnings of a new one to make the marks that give rise to a novel image.
Beezy Bailey demonstrates his technique of "cloud painting", in which an old canvas is dragged across the beginnings of a new one to make the marks that give rise to a novel image.
Image: Michael Hall

Bailey’s technique is to use paintings as paintbrushes: he takes a previous painting, usually one deemed unsatisfactory, and drags it across the surface of a fledgling new work, then uses the marks left behind as the basis for his new subject.

“Eighty percent of this bird painting painted itself. It was quite miraculous, because there are these three birds, and I did not paint those birds. They have these weird reflections, which came from the dragging. All I did was add tiny details, like one little eye on one of the birds. That becomes really exciting for me because you are properly entering a kind of subconscious magic. Obviously I want to sell everything, but that’s one I’d really like to keep.”

• Bailey’s 'Let There Be Light' exhibitions are at the Everard Read gallery in London and at Boughton House until June 1.

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