Africa's Van Gogh

2006-05-02 12:29

Durban - Dubbed "Africa's Van Gogh" for his vibrant landscapes and unfettered style, Anthony Wakaba Mutheki once hawked his works for as little as $1 apiece and flogged empty Coca-Cola cans to pay for paint.

But unlike the Dutch master, who died a relatively unknown pauper, the Kenyan-born artist has become one of Africa's hottest young talents, fetching up to $12 000 for his paintings and wowing collectors at home and abroad.

"You can see the hallmarks of a great artist in his work," said South African art critic Alex Sudheim. "It's like Van Gogh - Van Gogh didn't go to art school, he just had this powerful urge to create through painting and that is what Anthony does, he just does it his own way."

Like Vincent Van Gogh, who is famed for his powerful use of colour and coarse brushwork in paintings like "The Starry Night", the raw appeal of Mutheki's work is rooted in reality.

Instead of honing his skills at an art academy, Mutheki fine-tuned his talent on the street.

After moving to South Africa from Kenya with a rudimentary training in graphic design, Mutheki struggled to find work, ran out of cash and joined the thousands of African immigrants who eke out a living on the streets of Cape Town and Johannesburg.

He would scrape together money to buy paint then churn out as many works as he could, which he sold for as little as $1 at flea markets in South Africa's economic hub.

After around five years spent on the streets or sleeping in a shelter, Mutheki was spotted by an influential gallery owner who, bowled over by his originality, set in motion a rags-to-riches tale that has charmed critics and local media.

"There is a very strong energy in his pieces," said Craig Mark, who spotted Mutheki eight years ago. "His work is totally unique and the fact that he's not trained allows him to do what he wants. If he wants to stick a piece of fabric onto a canvas then paint over it then he will."

Booming art market

Mutheki is one of South Africa's most sought-after artists and is riding a boom in the art market as Africa's biggest economy enjoys its longest expansion on record.

Record low interest rates, subdued inflation and widespread tax cuts are encouraging many collectors to splash out on originals - still affordable in Africa - rather than prints.

Black African artists are in hot demand, particularly among corporate buyers keen to display their politically correct credentials, said Mark. This is good news for Mutheki, whose work includes classic African sunset vistas but also incorporates modern, abstract motifs with broader appeal.

Sudheim said Mutheki was starting to attract the kind of attention that could make him a major star in the art world.

"It is about the market forces, and especially in the art market it is about hype," said Sudheim.

"If the word gets out that there is a hot young talent on the rise, then it becomes a bit of a feeding frenzy. It's as if a cow has jumped into the Amazon river and the piranhas hear about it and all want a piece of it."

Private collector Brendan Adams has just paid $5 000 for his second Mutheki piece which he displays proudly above the fireplace in his comfortable Durban home.

Adams and his wife have decorated their entire living-room to match the bold yellow hues and earthy tones of their growing Mutheki collection.

Adams is confident that Mutheki's career is on the rise and reckons his paintings are a sound investment.

"Certainly, they are not cheap but I think they are good value," he said.

Mutheki, who has contributed to exhibitions across South Africa and in New York and Philadelphia, launched his first solo collection in Durban, where several big-ticket items were snapped up before the show even opened.

His debut Cape Town solo exhibition opens this month and he travels to Germany for a four-month exhibition later this year.

Mutheki now lives with his wife and daughter in a huge Durban house, and wears the trendy trainers and sharp suits you would expect to see on a hip-hop star, not a struggling artist.

But he says his humble beginnings in South Africa inspired his work and he describes his "Into the Light" exhibition in Durban as a "visual diary" of his life so far.

"I use my art to tell stories about what I have gone through in my life. When I am writing about my time on the streets, I use bright colours to show that no matter how hard life is, there is always hope," he told Reuters. "Living on the streets taught that patience pays off - you have to hang in there."