Blake Daniels

During the process of painting I often muse over things which my eyes can’t see:  whether failure is the truest queer art? Whether representation is a foolhardy road? How do we live with grief? What it means to remember? What is safety and home for queer people like myself?

I tell myself stories about stories, my memories becoming paintings replete with the play of drama, hyperbole, absurdity and tenderness. These silent musings and deft examinations of self find form in the genealogy of vivacious colour and dynamic mark making. They come together to create dreamlike and expressive compositions, pictorial plains which examine the private interior and socio-political conditions under which we establish, form and adapt our identities. Drawing inspiration from traditions of storytelling, queer cultural practices, art history and personal memories; the subject matter for my work revolves largely around Johannesburg and its subversive queer communities, having lived nearly a decade in South Africa and frequently returning since relocating to New York. This has provided a critical vantage point for examining identity within America through a non-Western perspective.

In this I think about how when the Kenyan literary giant, Binyavanga Wainaina, told us “how not to write about Africa”, he was railing against the pervasive desire to render Africa, thus Africans, legible in frames which constrain meaning of one’s complex lives into digestible single stories. This flattening of the complexity of reality is precisely the Archimedean cue from which my work emerges.

In the painting “Triumph of the Southern Suburbs,” my ex-partner and dear friend Tshepo stands tall in what first appears to be a nightclub, the space slowly changing into what may be a garden or a suburban walled street. Beatific, yes, gods: not so much. Historically when Africans have been blown up into these life size figures, it becomes all too easy to pretend that there is a mythical transcendence that allows a separation from a reality dictated by the West. Yet, there, the former South African president’s portrait hangs off centre to the right, shadowing a sexy fem-masculine figure being watched with adoration. These vignettes, much like American and South African society, are at odds with themselves, yet are capable of coalescing what is seemingly paradoxical.

I want us to look, because nothing is hidden, even in nude rendering nothing is exposed. In this and other works, there are no “Easter eggs”, but a patient invitation to look from multiple vantage points. To acknowledge that there are complexities to the identities of the subjects that extend beyond our recognition and register of social cues. Is a person’s ‘queerness’ any less just because you cannot see it? Nearly every figure in my paintings are in some form a representation of queerness, proud and in clear sight, yet often rendered in ways which are not easily marked. In this act of looking, even beyond the subjects of the paintings, I invite us to feel the material of paint itself, the feeling when opacity meets translucence to produce something more than legibility all together.

See the men behind the curtain? The dog sunning as red ants evict people?  I am reminded of WH. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” when he notices in Pieter Brueghel’s figures “how everything turns away, quite leisurely from the disaster”. Like Auden and Brueghel, the paintings dare us to bear witness.

The “otherworldly” quality to these life sized figures is not attributed to a fantastical force, but the queering of Christian motifs. Reminiscent of El Greco, the mysticism I conjure is precisely the stuff of this corporeal plane, something these figures, members of my chosen family, make with sheer force of will. They triumph in spaces where we were told we would die. And some of us do indeed die. Painting must also allow us to mourn and be mournable, to process the parts of our identities cleaved off by society when rendering us visible under a post-colonial logic.

I think of Mongane Wale Serote’s poem “Hell, Well, Heaven” when locating this ‘otherworld’ within both my practice and the work itself:

“I do not know where I have been,
But Brother,
I know I’m coming.
I do not know where I have been,
But Brother,
I know I heard the call.” 

I often ask myself while painting where in turn I am calling from. Am I calling from Johannesburg? Or New York? Or Sebokeng? Or Cincinnati? For in my work, place functions as a central organizing principle. It becomes as much a character as the life size figures rendered in each painting. But you don’t have to recognise the topographical references or even the faces. What is important is that the work never falls into metaphorical abstraction. In the painting ‘Sunday Loadshedding’ the domestic setting, illuminated in saturated purples, oranges and greens, congeals what is otherwise a composition made of fragmented subjects. The central figure, the journey of motherhood I have shared with fellow artist Mbali Dhlamini; the baby, a repeating portrait of myself as a satyr; the child, a fleeting memory of a story once told about a friends fetish for catching and killing rats in youth. These disparate subjects and places find consequence in the ways in which they share colour, mark and form, revealing a clarity beyond their specific references in the formal qualities of the material itself.  

Traversing these spaces I have lived, loved and mourned in, the question then is not “where” the paintings are calling from, which might suggest that there is a territoriality being examined, but “how” they are calling. I am IN place, but neither the paintings nor the subjects represented within are rendered OF place. This subtle move locates my vantage point within the works narratives and holds me accountable to that position while creating space for the subjects to become more than my own experiences. The memories of people and places take shape in this space through a deliberate working with light and proportion. The sheer scale, makes this space undeniable, though rendered invisible, unspeakable, in a language for emplacement that isn’t territorially bound.  

The paintings are calling us from a magical-realist dreamscape. One which can meet our own experiences while  inviting us to run with the references they wear on their sleeve. I bring my former art studio neighbour David Koloane’s haunting renditions of street dogs into conversation with Gustave Doré’s “Triumph of Christianity over Paganism” (1899) via Mamma Anderson’s filmic composition, alongside Koko Lang’s exilic register in works such as ‘Johannesburg Street Dogs or the Assumption of Lerato’. 

Ultimately teaming as a world building project, my work offers a visceral and delicate language to an aesthetic of memory and place. The figures, are friends and lovers, intimate relationships blown up to attempt an approximation of proportion, a means to mark their significance to my memory making process and therefore the world I have come to construct and know. It is an improbable world, filled with people and places of such wild variance: nothing in the given nationalities, race, gender, histories, languages and cultures would suggest that this is a world which we would all inhabit together. The figures mirror and refract each other, magnets traversing epistemic minefields, more tender still because what is at stake is greater than the sum of our paths that have brought us here. Yet this is our world, it is indeed possible and it is worth continuing to reimagine and further create.