Interview for ART AFRICA magazine. Patrizia Helene Litty interviews the South African artist, Layziehound Coka. He talks to her about his shift from engineering to visual art, his unusual iconography & how hip-hop influences his work.
Patrizia Litty: Interestingly, you had started to study engineering when you switched to fine art in 2005, which is a giant step to take. I would be curious to hear more about this dramatic change in your career.
Layziehound Coka: Desperation breeds panic and nothing goes right when you are in that state of mind.I needed to do something with my life and time was not gonna wait for no man, including me.
I enrolled with engineering because I sought advice from people around me and from professionals I had easy access to. When I was in the middle of it, I realised, I was lost. I looked for myself from all corners of the world and on my way to advertising I stumbled on visual arts, which captivated me with its creative freedom.
To be in control of your concepts and ideas from inception to manifestation is a blessing, and I’m more than blessed to be paid for doing something I enjoy doing tirelessly whether I’m rich or poor.
You were still born and raised in an apartheid South Africa and are now part of the first post regime generation of artists. Are you aware of this particular status quo? Does it imbue a sense of responsibility in your work?
I think I’m aware of that; a little responsibility is always attached to who you are. Whether you are black or white, rich or poor, clergy or commoner, that status you are born into becomes part of your identity and your responsibility to either protect or despise. I guess it’s unrealistic to expect me to be responsible for everyone or to represent them in a way that would do them justice.
An environment is the essence of a man, and as an African I feel the need to express my understanding of the world from an African vantage point. Automatically that reflects the way I see the world and my position in the game of life. We have stories that the world is craving to know, for we are the poorest economically, but the richest culturally.
Growing up in the homelands in KZN there was no way you cannot know that you were a third class citizen on your own soil. It was a norm. I wasn’t old enough to understand that it was inhuman to live under such conditions. Therefore, the only direct oppression was the secondary one where even our teachers made reference to white people as the smartest, richest, most beautiful etc. Even though my art does not address such issues, but seeing people in colour is still quite prevalent if we can be honest with ourselves.
You use hip hop lyrical content in your work, Basquiat is an artist that you like to reference as an inspiration, there seems a de nite connection to the American street art culture, yet there are so many references in your work to your Zulu identity. Can you tell us a bit more about these different influences, and how they affect / reflect in your work.
I’m lyrically handsome, and hip hop has driven me along a path where I define life as I know it without speaking a word, a world where expressing myself comes in form of written words and images. Music has groomed me; it has moulded my character into a formidable artist that does what he does unapologetically. Africans to me come as people who respect and relate better to originality of something or at least try. Whatever foreign elements you may invite or apply in your life or art will have your identity and will reflect who you really are as a person. Being a Zulu is not something I attempt to be, but I am and all that I am germinates in that soil. Everything else is a pursuit. Basquiat is the leader of the element of crazy, emancipation and subconscious genius. Bacon on the other hand a master of twisted romance and a merchant at soliciting solitude. Diane Victor a workaholic that inspires and motivates quietly, constantly astonishing.
Nicholas Hlobo is so profoundly genius as if he’s not aware of it, and his modesty is humbling. I’m a constructed soul, borrowing from lots of legends such Wu-Tang Clan, Shon G and Moja Phu, Miles Davis, Killarmy, MF Doom and Mfaz’omnyama. You can’t really claim, having original ideas when you’re surrounded by so much intelligence and influences in your thinking zone. How about my mother’s lessons that continually surface underneath what I regard as my purest of thoughts of mine?
There is this unique thread of technique in your works, i.e. the dissecting of your subjects into mere geometric shapes. Could you comment on this particular technique of yours?
As an artist you’re required to stand out and pay tribute to all legendary thoughts that inspire your creativity. My geometric lines represent significant thoughts that I may have during the intimate conversation with my canvas. My little squares would account for all major and minor decision made about the piece or during the making of.
I have to admit that colours come as I work without any planning, but there’s always a part of me that wants to reveal initial sketchy lines. I preserve them the best way I know.
There is of course the “Layziehound” iconography, your powerful use of symbols that occurs throughout your work, such as sweeping lines, squares, microphones etc. Please tell us more about these symbolism.
Symbols give birth to suggestions, suggestions allow the mind to migrate beyond canvas ideas without a single word. Therefore; signs, symbols, objects are a threshold powerhouse that serves as a mnemonic agent for a distant memory to bring a particular concept into oneness. There’s never a time where I create work without meaning or an intention to pass on a certain philosophy or pose a question, rhetoric or indirect.
Your choice of exhibition titles like ‘Hazardous Diction’, ‘Guns are Drawn’, and so on reflect a distinct intellectual and philosophical approach to your art. Could you talk a bit about your process of creativity?
When I was studying art, I was told that being an artist is far greater than being a president of any country, rich or poor, because you can’t pretend to be doing art. I was told that I was the custodian of human spirit, an anthropologist and a prophet, for artists before us painted dreams that turned out to be this exact life we are living, therefore if our nation was gifted with care and wisdom, they would treat their artist like deities. Artists, especially visual artists are dream chasers and live to fulfil their desires not for monetary things of this world that they did not make, they believe in their craft that it’s worth more than gold. When I title my show I usually look at the continuation of my sermon, cause I’m a spiritual leader, the intellectual speaker who seeks to make love to your eardrums and tattoo your soul with honesty, than with love.
Ngiyethemba ngizolaleleka (I trust him/her to succeed)