Obituary: Lesley Perkes – The good fairy of public art

2015-02-22 15:00

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Even on her deathbed, public art activist Lesley Perkes dreamed of a new city. At her funeral last Sunday, the cultural community turned out in force to say goodbye. Charlotte Bauer remembers her

Lesley Perkes was the good fairy of public art. But she was never airy-fairy.

It was her passion to turn plain things – grim buildings, scrappy street corners – into arresting works of art. It was her power to make it happen.

That she succeeded in getting so much public art on to the streets of this country – despite the expense, the political protocols, the demands of city partners and corporate sponsors and the temperaments of artists – was remarkable.

But then, as Lesley once said, “most of our work is about stamina?...?about writing another proposal, asking for another meeting”.

She would say yes to projects that “nobody in their right mind” would consider because “I am not in my right mind”.

It was with this Lesley in mind – freestyling visionary meets micromanager – that I invited her to pitch for a Sunday Times public art project I was involved with in 2006.

As the time approached for her to come in to the office and persuade my bosses to part with extravagant money to build 40 bespoke street sculptures, I grew nervous.

Lesley looked like someone emerging from a three-day music festival in the desert, and I wasn’t sure how her rumpled urban hippie vibe would go down in the boardroom. Would she wear one of her crazy outfits – the Day-Glo “Danger! Artists at Work” bib or, yikes, the uMlungu T-shirt? Would her hair be zigzag shaved up one side?

She arrived in a suit with her hair in a bun – and proceeded to wow the suits. She had done her homework, was budget-savvy and, without once saying “multidimensionality” she convinced us to greenlight a risky, original art adventure.

Over the following 18 months, Lesley made good on every one of her promises to build small, beautiful art pieces, each telling a story of our history on the spot where it happened, on street corners throughout South Africa.

Lesley’s company, artatwork, was the driving force behind many instantly familiar public works around Johannesburg, including Cell C’s building-size city murals, Mary Sibande’s art billboards of the glamorous domestic worker Sophie and Doung Anwar Jahangeer’s globe sculpture commissioned for the 2010 Fifa World Cup at Ellis Park.

Last year I bumped into her at an opening. It turned out we were both involved in 20 Years of Democracy projects – she for the Goethe Insitute’s international exhibition of apartheid photography, I for City Press’ yearlong coverage of the anniversary. It took 20 seconds for us to decide to partner again.

Lesley made herself a hard bed to lie on. She didn’t always have steady work; she knocked on many more doors than were opened to her. She was mugged more times than a coffee cup as she tour-guided potential sponsors around Hillbrow to realise her dream of painting the iconic tower.

She was also the creative force behind one of the city’s most intimate public works of art, a king-size concrete bed complete with padded headboard and crumpled duvet on Bezuidenhout Street, outside her house in Troyeville.

It is titled Bedtime Story. Goodnight Lesley.

One of the last photos of Lesley Perkes. Picture: Dean Hutton


Anton Harber

We all have dreams, but some of us have huge dreams. Lesley Perkes was one of those who didn’t mess around with the small stuff. She was an endless source of ideas and passion for huge public art projects that could change our city and the lives of those in it. Decorating massive towers, putting huge paintings on huge buildings, mobilising dozens of artists to speak out about political and social issues … These were the things always on her mind.

And she was one of the few people who actually pursued their big dreams. She had endless energy and persistence in trying to convince the city or corporate South Africa to do bold and different things. Many of those who worked in the city’s cultural bureaucracy will tell you how she hounded and pursued them with ideas and plans, refusing to let anyone equivocate.

Lesley cared about people, about art, culture, public space, public discussion, about her country and city – not as a place or a site, but a space occupied by real people.

She had little time for cant. At her funeral, one of her friends told me that whenever he saw her she would say, “Haven’t you made enough money yet? Isn’t it time you did something useful?” And she had a bunch of suggestions, I expect, for what this person could do.

The attendance at her funeral was a tribute. It was one of the biggest I have been to in a long time, and the crowd was all kinds: young and old, businessmen, bureaucrats and bums, artists and con artists, musicians and mavericks. Mostly mavericks, come to pay tribute to a marvellous, big-hearted maverick.

- Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies and director of the Journalism Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand

Public Art expert Lesley Perkes in a shoot for City Press.
Picture: Leon Sadiki


Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

The most important project for Lesley was the tower, which was her icon, her sentinel, the last thing she saw before she closed her eyes and the first thing that opened her day.

For the past few years she has been passionately trying to clean up the Hillbrow area and paint the Hillbrow tower, make it a healthy clear space for children to grow up and people to live with dignity.

She has been collaborating with Gerard Bester of the Hillbrow Theatre project, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Milisuthando Bongela and João Orecchia in consultation with Telkom and the City of Joburg to make this public art project an example of social and urban renewal.

On the way to one of her presentations she was attacked by two homeless people who stole her phone. She was injured, covered in blood and still gave the performance of a lifetime, inspiring the boardroom suits and reminding them of the warm blood pumping through their veins.

- De Villiers is an award-winning poet and writer

* Read Charl Blignaut’s interview with Perkes about the Hillbrow Tower project here

Picture: Leon Sadiki


City Press asked her sister Jaqui Perkes to give us the biographical info

Lesley Perkes was born in Johannesburg on June 17 1961. She was the third child of Wallace and Sonia Perkes, an ordinary Benoni couple who fell in love and married in the 50s, and who eventually had five kids, all girls.

Les was brought up in a family that remains tight and loving, despite our father which art in heaven now, having departed in 2007, and Lesley’s partner, Michael Kier leaving earth shortly after our father. Both men were ill simultaneously.

Les and Mikey’s wonderful son, Chili David recently passed his matric and will soon start his own amazing journey in life. He was the apple of their eyes, both.

Lesley always had a driven artistic-activist streak in her, probably inherited in the genes as our ancestors were heavily involved in Jewish theatre and traditions. She was fiercely independent and her career started out in the dramatic arts: she played the Artful Dodger when still in nursery school.

We grew up in an environment where we were encouraged to speak out and debate, provided we were not dishonest or underhand in any way.

Les went to various schools in Joburg – we moved around a lot, and ultimately did a BA degree at Wits, where she excelled and met many people she still knew at the time of her untimely passing. A passion for community and art combined to make Les a fighter for really beautiful cities and public spaces.

In 1994 she started The Road, an ambitious initiative where she encouraged fellow artists to try and respond to the idea of democracy by changing the physical public space. Lesley worked for a living at various endeavours including Saitex, advertising agencies, Sandton Central Improvement District, ever increasing her circles of creative engagement and bringing them in line with the corporate and government arenas. She formed artatwork with curator Monna Mokoena, and embarked on a number of ambitious projects that culminated in the world’s physically largest outdoor art exhibition, Long Live the Dead Queen.

She was just short of 54 years young when she contracted Hodgkins Lymphoma, which was not properly diagnosed for many months, and only recently, after spending months of quandary.

She was admitted to a chemotherapy programme – this, however, was too late, because it took hold of her very compromised immune system and an opportunistic lung disease started, which prohibited her from continuing chemo until that could be resolved.

Sadly, she succumbed early on the morning of 13 February 2015. Lesley who art in heaven is probably already plotting her next project to beautify the place and make people keenly aware that the world is in a bit of a mess... We look forward to her next instalment.

Les leaves behind the best family in the world: her son, Chili David, our mother, Sonia, her sisters Stephanie (in Wales), the twins Arlette and Jaqui and Bethea; and last, by no means least, Saint Martha to round us off, not excluding the myriad of cousins and dear friends who will miss her lively spirit which will live in our hearts forever.

Classic Lesley Perkes, determined to overcome any obstacle


Dion Chang

Lesley was a champion of the arts (responsible for giant artworks that covered buildings in downtown Jozi and much of the public art for the 2010 World Cup), champion of the underdog and just all round champion. A beautiful soul who made the world a better and prettier place. She lived life at full tilt, which is the one small comfort for those she has left behind and who now feel the vacuum. You shall be missed, dearly.

- Chang is a trend analyst and founder of Flux Trends

Lesley Perkes. Picture: Leon Sadiki


Nechama Brodie

Here are some quotes from a 2013 interview with Lesley I did for the Sunday Times:

“I’ve been here for 20 years. I live on what is apparently the wrong side of the tracks, with a beautiful view of the city. I wouldn’t leave here.”

“The best thing about Troyeville is, when we say community we not talking about the type that gets spoken about at corporate cocktail parties. We know each other, a lot of us; we know each other well enough to have keys to each other’s houses, and there is a lot of real genuine care and love between the people who have lived here so long. This is where the artists, the intellectuals live. Between Yeoville and Troyeville they are the most densely populated artist communities – visual artists, writers, poets, musicians, the odd journalist. Everyone wants to make Maboneng and Newtown the creative capitals. We feed those places. We live here we work there.”

“Troyeville is very beautiful, on the eastern edge of inner city. It’s an important gateway into the city. The view is very important I suppose. To live in Troyeville on top of a hill is the best place, sort of like living in Cape Town without the sea. And we think of Bez Valley as the valley of happiness.”

- Brodie is a journalist and the author of numerous books, including The Joburg Book

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