Stop telling artists of colour to paint “poverty porn” and politically thoughtful pieces when what people spend thousands of rands on are pictures of still lifes and landscapes.
Thus says renowned street artist Falko One. He is tired of being told to paint more “political stuff” and after 30 years in the street art industry, the Cape Town-born artist is on a mission to cement his identity outside of “the struggle”.
Four years ago, he says, “witchcraft” and serendipity colluded in providing him his reputation. He describes it as a “dumb set of circumstances” that happened in Senegal. He unwittingly offended local villagers with his images of chickens.
“I got clamped down on because they said I can’t paint chickens because it’s used in witchcraft.
“There I was, stuck in this little ghetto outside Dakar, surrounded by the community, being asked why the f*** I am painting chickens, and I thought actually, I can paint elephants.
“And that was it. And it wasn’t intentional. But like in all good stories … necessity is the mother of invention.”
And four years later, Falko says he has painted hundreds of elephants in little towns, cities, squatter camps and suburbs. “And I’m happy. And it’s all I want to do.”
Asked what his influences are, Falko barely has to think. Forensic detective shows, criminal minds, British comedies and cooking shows. Basically “anything other than watching or reading something about art itself” – so as to encourage his lateral thinking, you see.
Falko seldom wants to tell journalists he was born in District Six in Cape Town, lest the interview deteriorates into another rags to riches “started from the bottom kind of story”.
“ I try not to do that, I try to stay away from that because already if you say you’re from District Six you’re presenting yourself as ‘this person’, and I’m trying to not be classified as an artist by where I come from,” he says.
Falko has spent most of his career following trends, mimicking other artists and generally being “part of the scene”, he points out.
“As South African graffiti artists, when we travel to Europe and those places they ask us what is ‘our identity’ – and there never was one. And only now are we starting to come into its form but for 26 years let’s just say I never had an identity, it was just about what was popular.”
Travelling across the country during his Once Upon a Town tour, Falko made a fundamental discovery – about the meaning of his ethnic identity, and why perhaps South Africans put far too much emphasis on what differentiates them from others.
Falko headed to the Kalahari in the Northern Cape in 2016 to find places to paint and to explore what he thought might be his ethnic heritage.
“It’s a complicated story as you might know. And even among the coloured people there is division. You can tell by how I look that I’m definitely not ‘bushman’, I have some Indian and Malay. My name is Craig Cupido and that’s as English a name gets. Cupido is f**cking … Latin. Cupido was apparently some nickname the Dutch used to give their dogs, ” he quips.
He says the one valuable thing he learned about the Kalahari jaunt was that he was not as native as he thought he was.
“I went there and the ‘bushmen’ were, like, this is a mixed area, its coloured and bushman. And I was, like, I thought I wasn’t bushman. I was a tourist in my own culture, [and] that was cool.”
What bothers him the most about art as an industry in South Africa is the apparent discrepancy between what artists of colour are expected to create and what people are willing to pay for. Artists of colour are always expected to do “art that has political, social and f***ing historical connotations”.
“You’ve got to tell a story, you’ve got to shuck and jive and sell it,” he laments. “ So all these people who are expecting artists to paint this, are the same people that are not f***ing buying it!”
If artists try to break away from that, they are accused of selling out, he says, whereas white artists “can paint a still life of an orange and flowers, R100 000, no explanation given.”
Falko is in his element, painting onto metal, brick and concrete a magical fever dream of elephants at play among sea creatures. And that is that.