Rasta on his 'deep and personal' connection to his controversial art works

Rasta moved to South Africa in search of a better life.
Rasta moved to South Africa in search of a better life.
Lubabalo Lesolle/Drum

This story previously appeared in the print edition of Drum Magazine.

Whenever he puts paint to canvas, he gets people talking – and his latest work of art is no different. Rasta caused a social-media storm when he unveiled a painting of socialite Zodwa Wabantu, and his critics didn’t hold anything back. “Thought it was Zozi [Tunzi, Miss Universe] then I realised it’s a man’s face. I then saw Zodwa standing there and wondered why she was there because that’s still not her,” one social-media user wrote. “I thought this was Zozibini, then I thought it’s Siya Kolisi, then I realised it’s Zodwa but then again I thought this was a Bafana Bafana player.

"Rasta is the best. He drew everyone in one pic,” another posted.

Rasta, real name Lebani Sirenje, isn’t letting the criticism get him down. “At first the comments used to bother me but now they don’t,” he tells us. “Social media has really made me famous. Sometimes, the love and attention is overwhelming [even though] there are those who have said I should draw myself and others say they will cut off my hands.” The artist, however, believes beauty is in the eye of the beholder. “I wish I could explain my art. Like with the Zozi Tunzi, which I believe was exactly like how she looks, I wanted it to be relatable to any young girl. I captured her the way she is, and it is a beautiful image,” he says.

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Rasta (42) wishes people understood his vision. “One day, I know they will look back and say, ‘Oh, now we get it’,” And while everyone may not appreciate his talents, he’s encouraged by the recognition he’s receiving. “I just hear people shouting, ‘Rasta! Rasta!’ in the streets and that makes me want to continue doing amazing work.”

Growing up in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, he didn’t imagine he’d find fame in a foreign country. He’d always loved sketching and his talent was validated at school when he drew a picture of Nelson Mandela. His classmates were immediately “wowed” when they saw the finished product, which he says was “a spitting image” of Madiba. As a young man, Rasta moved to South Africa in search of a better life. “I have called Hillbrow home for the past 24 years. I love my community,” he says.

He’s worked in construction as a welder, a tiler, a ceiling installer and anything where he used his hands. “But something was missing, I wanted to paint and be an artist. When I got paid, I’d use the money to buy painting material. I eventually decided to stop painting part-time when I quit my job.”  His sacrifice was worth it, he tells DRUM. “When I paint, I become deeply connected to the painting and the vision. I bring emotion to life in my art.”

He’s been married for 19 years and has two daughters, Angel Buhlebenkosi (16) and Angelic Luthando (6). The girls love painting too, he says, and he looks forward to seeing where their interest leads them.

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When he’s not painting, Rasta dabbles as a newsreader and creative director at Hillbrow Radio. He joined the online radio station about five years ago after the founder saw him painting. “He asked if I would be interested, and I said, ‘Of course’,” Rasta says.

In Hillbrow, he’s made a name for himself as a respected community member who has dedicated his time to teaching children more about art at the local recreation centre where his work is also displayed. “Hillbrow is known as a dangerous place for violence and drugs. “As people who live there, I believe we have the responsibility to make a difference where we can.”

Rasta rose to fame when he started showing up at various celebrity funerals with his paintings. “When Nelson Mandela was in hospital, I’d be outside with the crowd who was praying for him and painting different portraits of him every day,” he recalls. These days you’re likely to find him in the front row at celebrity funerals and memorial services. “I get to venues very early, before people get there, to start painting the person we are there to honour,” he explains. “After I finish a painting, I go to the bereaved family and present the painting to them. I’m guaranteed to get smiles from people who appreciate my art. They might leave their loved ones at the graveyards, but they take a special painting of them back home with them.” He spends his own money when he goes to these memorials and funerals. “No one funds me or pays for the paintings I do but for me it’s not about the money, it is about the passion I have.”

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Recently, he painted Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Joseph Shabalala. Rasta says there are plans to put the painting, which was also criticised on social media, on auction later this year. “Depending on who buys it, that painting can reach R150 000 or even more,” he says. The proceeds, he adds, will go towards the academy that’s to be built in honour of the LBM founder in KwaZulu-Natal. He doesn’t usually make much money from his portraits, though. “The money I make from the clients I get is enough to sustain me and put food on the table. “Like Mandela, I want to leave a legacy. I want to be remembered as a man who did a lot to put art on the map. Already, artists are giving me compliments and thanking me for making art trend.”

This year, for Mandela Day, Rasta is planning an exhibition of the work he has done of the statesman over the years. “I have collected and painted iconic pictures of this great man, those taken internationally too. So, this year I will exhibit 67 portraits of him that I’ve done since I started painting,” he says.  “It’s going to be really special”.