Published in Sunday Times Lifestyle. 12 October 2014

I like my propaganda to be the start of the conversation

The iconic poster of US presidential candidate Barak Obama during the 2008 elections.

THE look value of Jozi’s inner city has just gone up.

Jostling against the billboard clutter is a new mural of Madiba, spanning a canvas of seven apartment block floors.

If there is a familiarity to the clean lino-cut and pattern motif style, glued together with simple worded directives, there’s no copycat at work. The renowned street artist Shepard Fairey has come to Braamfontein, Johannesburg, to spray his latest proclamation.

We meet inside the building he’s transforming outside. A vast window commands a grand view of the Nelson Mandela Bridge, illuminated against the Joburg skyline. This is one of the world’s “ten most influential cities” chosen by cognac brand Hennessy in which to promote a very special Limited Edition label designed by the artist. Hennessy’s marketing brains have made their own clever blend of the eau-de-vie of street culture and luxury. Fairey, a ubiquitous conqueror of walls and T-shirts, now colonizes fine liquor collections.

Tonight, the key ingredient wearily shuffles to get comfortable on a hard chair. Unwashed hands and paint-splattered jeans signal the end of a long day. Fairey has just flown in from Berlin; next is Toronto.

Between travelling, there are personal projects (he’s working on a Rolling Stones poster later that night), bottle signings, social functions and more interviews. It’s a heavy price tag for this 44-year-old father of two daughters. But the tiredness lifts as he reveals his excitement at being in Joburg.

Since an old friend fired his interest in South Africa during the “purple people” protests of 1989, it was always his intention to come here. Scheduling and finances held him back, until the Hennessy gig came about.

His mural draws on that memorable moment when riot police’s purple dye — sprayed on opstokers (troublemakers) to mark them for arrest — became a badge of defiance.

In Fairey’s image, a smiling Madiba is set against a King Protea motif. His raised fist, and a verbal twist on the Freedom Charter demand — “The Purple Shall Govern” — pop against a black shirt. At first glance, the image could be read as an indulgently syrupy shot of borrowed sentimentality — until one appreciates Fairey’s self caution against imperious messaging. “As opposed to more sinister propaganda, where others like their work to be the end of the conversation, I like my propaganda to be the start of the conversation,” he says.

Fairey has come less to raise his own banner than to gong a national call to remain vigilant. “I get to do my spin on this portrait to remind us that sometimes it is a few courageous people that end up helping to achieve critical mass for a movement. Stooping to the petty quarrels of humanity, you will never achieve anything. You sometimes have to wait patiently for many years, maintaining a philosophy that eventually people will stand behind.”

Fairey started provoking 25 years ago with a sticker campaign featuring the massive wrestler Andre Roussimoff, paired with the words “Andre the Giant has a Posse”. It was spontaneous fun, but soon evolved into an experiment on the public responses to a nonsensical message. Some appreciated the art, others tore it down, and some feared it as an anti-establishment threat.

These days the message is presented in more refined forms: statements intended to unlock rather than to confuse. “The greatest thing about street art is that it exists where people live. Anyone can engage with it. And that democracy is incredible; it means there is dialogue,” says Fairey.

He mentions the therapeutic process of tuning out the “white noise” in messages that surround us. “I lose track of time, the CD ends and I don’t even notice because I am immersed in what I’m doing. This is the beauty of art.”

Whether it is a Juxtapoz magazine cover or a protest poster, much of Fairey’s process transfers to the audience: the graphical elements seem to offer a loosened thread for us to pull. This quality has made him one of the most influential popular art commentators, alongside the likes of Banksy and Barbara Kruger. In his famous “Hope” poster, created independently during the 2008 US elections, he paired presidential candidate Barack Obama’s image with bold type and racially indeterminate, non-partisan hues. “I thought one of the biggest challenges Obama faced was racism. Even though I’m someone who, like Bob Marley, thinks that ‘the colour of a man or woman’s skin should be of no more significance than the colour of their eyes ’, that’s not the way all Americans think. To me the idea of illustrating him in a more patriotic palette, that reduced the race factor, was important in levelling the playing field.”

Was his iconisation of Obama misplaced in light of the president’s flagging popularity? Fairey is pragmatic. “My opinions about Obama are different to 2008, because he had yet to take office then and be presented with the challenges of office. There are things I’ve disagreed with him about, and there have been lots of efforts to sabotage him. I think there was no way for Obama to live up to what a lot of people hoped for, including me.”

Such inevitable disappointments have far from worn down Fairey’s resolve to provoke through his art. If anything, they have emboldened him. “When people complain about politics in America, I say, ‘Well, are you voting? Are you using all the tools at your disposal to push the conversation in the right direction? And if you’re not, you should probably be quiet.’”

Fairey is pushing in his own way. Tirelessly campaigning with the seemingly irrational charge to “obey giant”  -the current evolution of his first work. He’s an evangelist against apathy and cynicism — which he fears “will give the most leverage for the people with the most power to gain even more ”. He wants unremitting effort to be part of his legacy. “What I hope to leave is the idea that it doesn’t require virtuosity; it requires stamina, persistence and a work ethic.”

The interview ends too soon. Will he spend some time at local nightspots? No: after a quick dinner, he will return to his hotel and carry on working. While I’m ushered away, he graciously thanks me with a handshake, and — with a sudden proselytising impulse — offers me a stack of stickers.  / KT

Shepard Fairey in front of his mural installation at Johannesburg's Braamfontein district. Picture: Waldo Sweigers.

Shepard Fairey's Nelson Mandela mural. Picture: Wikipedia

An 'Obey' sticker of Andre the Giant.

Are you voting? Are you using all the tools at your disposal?