Born to be an artist

2010-12-09 00:00

Philemon Bayipon Mpoyi’s charming illustrations for Gertrud Tönsing’s recently published song book Listen! Africa’s Calling are in pencil, but a visit to his studio at Basani­ Art and Craft in Hyslop Road, where he is resident artist working under the name Philemon Bayipon,­ soon provides evidence that he is equally adept with paint.

In his studio at the back of the premises drawings and paintings jostle for attention. One of the latter is a recently completed self-portrait. Worked up from a black-and-white photograph it shows Bayipon with a slightly quizzical expression on his face plus a hint of the laughter that is never far away. Behind him in the painting is a child shown in profile, an idealised version of Bayipon­’s young self armed with the paintbrushes and pencil that will define his future.

Bayipon began painting at the age of 10 in the town where he was born in 1979, Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “But I’ve been drawing since I was born,” he says, “drawing in the sand with sticks and stones, and with pencil and paper when I went to school.”

As a child Bayipon recalls going to the local cinema to sketch copies of the film posters displayed in the foyer. He also got to see the movies they advertised. “Jackie Chan was a favourite,” he recalls. “And the Rambo films with Sylvester Stallone.”

Bayipon’s teachers at school were supportive of his talent. “When I was eight or nine my teacher showed my pictures to the other pupils. It was my first exhibition. I was so excited. After that people knew me as the artist.”

Bayipon already knew that that was what he wanted to be. While his father, Edward, was just keen that his son continued to go to school his mother, Astrid, actively encouraged his ambition. For her it was the fulfillment of a prophecy.

She had had two daughters and there was pressure to have sons. “She prayed to God and was told that she would have sons and that they would be artists, involved with art and music, and that they would also serve God. So she always encouraged my art and my going to church — I also used to preach when I was very young.”

God proved even-handed in the dispensation of gender. Bayipon is the seventh of 10 children, five boys and five girls.

When Bayipon finished school, although he had obtained a place at the Academie De Beaux Arts, there was no money for further education. “It was difficult to find a job,” he says, then one of his brothers, who was a newspaper cartoonist, introduced him to a newspaper editor and over a three-year period Bayipon­ worked as a cartoonist on five newspapers: Palmares, Grognons, Canard Dechainee, Pot Pourri and Pili-Pili.

“The cartoons were political,” he says. The government of Joseph Kabila­ did not take to criticism — not even from cartoonists. “Some of my colleagues were arrested and tortured. My life was in danger so I decided to leave the country and come to South Africa.”

Initially he left Kinshasa for Lumbumbashi and briefly tried to make a living playing guitar in various bands. Several of Bayipon’s brothers and sisters were already living in South Africa and they encouraged him to come. It meant leaving his wife Charlie, back in Kinshasa where she was studying to be a nurse. They agreed she would remain to complete her studies. He arrived­ in 2006 and applied for political asylum.

Speaking only his mother-tongue Lingala, plus French, Bayipon managed to find work as a security guard in a mall in Cape Town. “It was a quiet­ job, you didn’t have to talk,” he says. “It was difficult for me not speaking English and I had several misunderstandings with the boss. Gradually I began to learn English, I started to understand a few words and then to say a few words. But it was slowly, slowly.”

“That was a hard time in my life,” he says. “My wife was still studying in the Congo, my family was struggling, my father was sick. He subsequently died two years ago.”

Bayipon then came to Pietermaritzburg to join one of his brothers who lives here and got a job house painting. During this time he kept up his drawing skills, but painting had to be put on hold as he could not afford materials. But things began to look up and his wife has joined him — they have two daughters Triomphe­ and Precieux.

Earlier this year Bayipon was recruited as resident artist at Basani where he also gives art classes. “I am looking for funding from the government­ to help young and old people around Pietermaritzburg improve and develop their art skills.”

Bayipon is now back working with his paints of choice: acrylics. As well as work for sale at Basani, Bayipon also does drawings or paintings on commission, preferably portraits. “Most South African artists do landscapes, and I can do them as well, but I prefer doing portraits because fewer artists do that.”

The child in his self-portrait occupies the right-hand top corner. In the left-hand corner is the piercing eye of an eagle. “That represents vision,” says Bayipon. “The vision of an artist and the vision that sees far into the future and the great things that can be achieved there.” • Listen! Africa’s Calling — New songs to traditional folk tunes is by Gertrud Tönsing, illustrated by Philemon Bayipon and published by Osborne Porter Literary Services. Copies are on sale at Basani, African Art and Craft, 15 Hyslop Road.

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