Mu­sic and dance are as much part of Cape Town artist Beezy Bai­ley’s work as colour, form and line

Sunday Times - - Art -

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.


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