The many facets of an artist's life

2013-08-01 00:00

THE walls of the home of artist Diamond Bozas in Eshowe are uncharacteristically bare; the paintings usually hanging there are in Pietermaritzburg and about to go on exhibition at the Tatham Art Gallery in a retrospective of this major South African artist, who turns 90 on August 23.

“I thought this exhibition would be a small thing,” says Bozas. However, Tatham director Brendan Bell, curator of the exhibition, had other ideas.

“He wanted to go way back into my youth — he wanted to see everything,” says Bozas, eyes sparkling as he laughs with infectious delight.

“It’s been wonderful; it has renewed my memory. Things I’d forgotten. People I knew.”

Bozas was born in Isipingo in 1923, the second of four sons (Lambros, Hector and Achilles being the others) born to Greek immigrants Alexander and Despina Bozas.

Given such an impressive array of Greek-derived names, Diamond seems something of an exception.

“My dad went to register me, but his English was very poor and the chap couldn’t understand him. He was saying Amadeus — in Greek it means diamond — but the chap just couldn’t get it. My father pointed to someone’s ring and then the chap got the picture — ‘Diamond?’ ‘Yes’.”

The Bozas family went to Eshowe in 1930 when Bozas was seven. They had initially been heading for Empangeni, but when the young Bozas contracted malaria, the doctors recommended high-lying Eshowe instead.

Bozas senior was a baker. “He arrived in Eshowe with £32 to rent premises and start a bakery.”

Although the first premises were not ideal — “every time it rained, the bakery would flood” — the business expanded and Bozas Bakeries became a well-known feature of the Zululand landscape.

Success didn’t come overnight. “One year, Dad was struggling and at Christmas there was nothing for us; no presents. But on Christmas Day, my father gave us each half a crown — I don’t think he told my mother — and we went to Mr Quick, who had a shop where he cut hair and sold cigarettes and sweets and toys. He opened up for us on Christmas Day. Lambros chose some brilliantine for his hair. Hector got a car, Achilles some pens or pencils and I chose a Japanned paint box with a brush. I had that for a very long time.”

Bozas cannot remember a time when he wasn’t holding a pencil or a paint brush. “I was always interested in art. I was the screwball, the oddity in the family.”

At school, he used to draw during the break times. “I used to draw battleships and sailing ships. I’m not sure why. I was always drawing or painting.

“While I was still at school, I would enter works in the agricultural show in Eshowe.”

And more often than not, win a prize.

But after matric, the bakery beckoned. “There was no option — it was straight into the bakery. I resented having to go into the bakery. I wanted to paint.”

Bozas painted when he could and spent his two weeks’ annual leave staying in Durban, where he visited the Technical College’s art department.

Despite not being a registered student, he was taken under the department’s wing and given assignments, which he worked on in the corridors.

It was there that well-known artist Nils Andersen spotted Bozas and was impressed by his work.

“‘Whenever you come to Durban, bring work and I’ll crit it for you’, he said,” recalls Bozas. “I used to do that until I went to the UK.”

In 1950, Bozas told his family that no matter what, he would one day go to England to study art. “I was saving money. I finally booked my passage on the Edinburgh Castle — it was its last trip. My family didn’t believe me. Only when I showed them the tickets did they acquiesce.”

Bozas had also saved enough money to spend four months at the Heatherley School of Fine Art in London.

“When I arrived in London, I was like an empty bucket, but I soon began to fill.” He took in the major art exhibitions and galleries, as well as the other cultural riches on offer.

“All the greats were there at that time: Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Victoria de los Angeles, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It was a feast of cream.”

However, Heatherley was changing direction and the course Bozas wanted to do suddenly became unavailable. So off he went to the Chelsea School of Art with a portfolio of work and, despite the term being under way, was accepted for the National Design Diploma (NDD). From then on, his family would fund his studies.

During the five years he spent in London, Bozas had three paintings accepted by the Royal Academy for their annual exhibition. He also married.

“My father went to Greece in 1958 and suggested we meet up in Athens,” says Bozas.

“It was there that I met Anastasia at a family gathering. I thought she was married — but, no, I was told the man she was with was her brother.

“We met on July 12, we were engaged on the 30th and married on August 20,” he says.

“We had to work quickly because I had to get back to London!”

When he obtained his NDD in 1960, Bozas would have liked to continue his studies at the Royal College of Art, “but the demands from home were strong” and it was back to the bakery.

“My blank years”, is how Bozas refers to the period that followed.

“I hardly did anything. I was so frustrated. If there was an exhibition, I’d steal time and send something off to Durban.”

After several years working at the bakery, the Bozas family came to a crossroads. The bakery had grown — employing over 100 staff and delivering all over Zululand — and the next logical move was another expansion, costing millions.

But Bozas had made a decision: “I didn’t want to be a baker anymore. I said: ‘No, I have had enough — if you want to put your heads in a noose, okay, but I’m leaving’.”

As it turned out, they had all had enough, even Bozas senior, whose traditional baking skills no longer had a place in automated bread production.

The family sold to Sasko. “Afterwards, people would stop me in the street and ask: ‘Don’t you miss the smell of fresh bread?’. Not one bit!”

As well as being able to concentrate on his painting, Bozas started a small nursery to bring in some income —  evidence of two other key interests: gardening and floral art.

The latter he took up after being overheard criticising a floral display at a show and being challenged to do better. He has since exhibited and given demonstrations all over South Africa, in Britain, Australia and Russia.

In Eshowe, Bozas has given art classes since 1975, was a founding member of the Zululand Society of the Arts and instrumental in the creation of the Vukani Collection Trust, which preserved the collection of Zulu artefacts by Reverend Kjell Lofroth and his wife Berna, now housed in the Vukani Zulu Cultural Museum in the Fort Nongqayi museum complex.

Eshowe provides the essential thread in Bozas’s life and although he has produced work in several genres — still life, landscape and portraiture — it is the subject matter close to hand that has come for many to define his work: cane fields.

“I saw something different in the cane fields,” he says.

“The patterns are ever-changing, both in the fields and on the contours. I saw lots of arabesques.”

Bozas’s meticulously detailed paintings grow from an initial sketch made on site. “And I take photographs as well. With the burning and the cutting, the fields can transform quickly, but I always choose a subject close to home so I can go back and check on it.”

According to Bell, no other artist “has portrayed Zululand’s indigenous vegetation, its historic sites and its cane-farming operations as Diamond has”.

“This is an artist who has helped us see Zululand and traditional Zulu artefacts in a different way. Diamond’s work is a record of our past — it’s part of our cultural heritage.”

• Diamond Bozas — His Life and Work, is at the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg from August 6 to January 19, 2014.

• feature1@witness.co.za

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