Music and dance are as much part of Cape Town artist Beezy Bailey’s work as colour, form and line
Years ago Beezy Bailey was having trouble sleeping. He arrived at a solution that makes complete sense if you know his art. “When I heard the birds I would freak out, until I imagined that each bird song, each note had a different colour. Somehow that made it less horrific and I would eventually fall asleep,” he recalls. It is this vivid imagination, driven to seamlessly pair or collapse sound with colour, that is a characteristic of his 35-year practice, and his solo exhibition Light Beyond the Dark that showed recently at Everard Read’s newish London gallery in Kensington.
It is not the first time Bailey has shown his art in the UK. Since the mid-’80s, when he showed at the International Contemporary Art Fair Olympia, to the early ’90s when he collaborated with David Bowie, he has had a foot in that art capital. Back home he has been regularly exhibiting at the Everard Read, the largest and oldest commercial art gallery in the country. He has also taken part in collaborative shows in Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic. As with music, his art speaks across cultures, though his grasp of dance as a ritualistic and cathartic tool is perhaps rooted in his African upbringing.
Taking the quick-step cure
Bailey proposed in his 2016 Cape Town exhibition at Circa gallery that dancing was the only solution to healing a world riddled with problems. The exhibition title, The 1 000-Year Dance Cure, pointed to this fantastical notion underpinning the dancing motif both on and off the canvas (he produced bronze sculptures of dancing bodies in his electric palette). He was in a dark place at the time. His marriage was seemingly on the rocks, the Cape Town drought had taken hold, Jacob Zuma was still in power, Brexit was on the cards and populist leaders appeared to be ruling a world gone crazy. Humankind seemed spiritually corrupt.
Dance, music, as a solution to strife is perhaps a typically South African response. The struggle for freedom from apartheid was intrinsically tied to song. “The revolution in South Africa is the only revolution anywhere in the world that was done in four-part harmony,” remarked musician Abdullah Ibrahim in Lee Hirsch’s 2002 documentary, Amandla!, which charted the country’s political struggle through song.
William Kentridge’s early works from the mid’80s are also marked by dancing figures. The Flood at the Opera and Room Service feature the recurring motif of a couple doing a ballroom dance amid all the violence and drama that defined the political upheaval of that era. In those works you sensed dance was a blinkered, or escapist response by the white middle classes — a sort of carry-on-playing-the-music while the Titanic sinks.
For Bailey, however, dance isn’t a turning away, but a turning within as it embodies immersion in music. Music in a way operates as a pervasive condition that plays in the background to our lives, quietly shaping our state of mind.
If the dark backgrounds to his works in his Astral Blanket, detail As It Is in Heaven II London show are anything to go by, current conditions are a little gloomy. Titles such as Dry Season and Don’t Go Gently into that Good Night, featuring rhinos, directly reference ongoing crises. The drought in Cape Town has held its citizens ransom to a looming “Day Zero” and rhinos are being steadily poached — it’s estimated three are killed daily, according to 2017 figures issued by Save the Rhino.
The musical sensibility in his art works at keeping the titular “light” and darkness in balance. His art is tied to music in every way. He paints to music, paints because of music, feeding off collaborations such as with Brian Eno, the music producer and ambient composer. His art is musical in that it presents open-ended and intangible compositions that evade logic.
Music of the spheres
In Astral Blanket, red and blue spheres plunge through a yellow sky. Flowers, bubbles, prancing bodies, and colour dominate his whimsical art. The bold electric shades of canary yellow, red and purple pulsate on the canvas as bodies leap and writhe as if entranced by the inaudible sounds of his vivid palette. In the wryly titled Weird Sister, three voluptuous figures rooted in a forbidding landscape are getting down to beats that escape the eye, or is it the ear?
His mother’s obsession with classical music should have set Bailey on the path to becoming a musician, but the pressure to do so is what ironically made him turn to painting. “It was an area she couldn’t push me, art was my magic garden,” he says.
Bailey locks himself in his studio, blasts music, mostly Pink Floyd (“I am a kid of the ’70s”) and chases forms through paint. Despite painting once offering a reprieve from playing music, music intrinsically informs his art, to the degree that musicians connect to it. Collaborations with Eno followed after the two showed their work at a London exhibition in the noughties. Bailey’s “magic” resonated with the famous producer.
“He cooks up new worlds, tiny and huge, peopled by bird-women, snake-men, lizard children, and animated vegetables, bursting with bright new music. He makes African jazz in paint, garish as the midday sun, dark as the deepest night,” Eno said.