Born in 1955 in Athlone, Kenneth Alexander is an author artist and activist who depicts real South African stories and whose content evokes sensitive and controversial discourse.
Being very vocal and candid about political and social issues in the Western Cape and South Africa as a whole, Alexander has experienced many challenges and setbacks where his craft is involved, but his unwavering passion for the arts has come with many successes.
The author of “Welcome To My World”, “Pavement Special” and “South African Byproduct” had a chat with Taxi Focus about his journey in the arts.
Tell us about your upbringing
My parents lived in Heathfield and then they had to move, you know? Because of Group Areas Act and they moved to Athlone. I was born in a garage. I make a joke many times that a lot of people said that I was a Mini, but I came in like a Mercedes Benz. But those are the circumstances I was born under, there were no fancy hospitals or things like that. Eventually I went to school and I did art in standard 6 [grade 8] as a subject. I remember the first year when Mr Allen (my arts teacher) saw me, he gave me a beating because I didn’t have my apron on. That was my introduction into art. I did it for the first year then my parents said no, so I did accounting and mathematics thereafter.
When did you officially get into the arts?
In the beginning of the 1990s when things started to change, I had my own little architectural practice. And then the elections came I did a lot of the posters during that time. Fast forward to 2006, I was offered a job at the company I had been working for, they wanted me to come in as a partner. Nine years later, in 2015, my time was up. I was chased out like a dog because I spoke up on corruption. After the challenges and court cases and me being penniless and bankrupt, I wouldn’t say I won, but we settled. As a result of that I said never again will I draw a building plan, so I started writing books. I’ve written and published 4 books already.
In 2016 you launched your art gallery, how did that come about?
I started doing sketches for my books. I continued sketching and painting and drawing. We turned our house into an art gallery. I dropped walls down and on the 24th of June we opened. The name of the gallery is Art In Athlone.
What message do you exhibit in your art?
I do a lot of political work where I exhibit the emotions of people in this very time. You know, in Cape Town at the moment we have this issue with this terrible rape of women and children and it’s ongoing. We need to get that message across, so I paint that type of stuff. I paint these in-your-face type of things. I paint the abuse. I paint the emotion. I have a painting called Masiphumelele Burning. Masiphumelele is a township in Fish Hoek area and because of the over population, lack of electricity and the houses being so close together, people strike and burn tyres so I depict a fire. But I also do calm art. Some people love flowers, animals and want family portraits. I do those too.
With your raw, emotive art, what has been the reception so far?
The reception has been a mixture of things. In Cape town, Coloured people have a tendency to not get involved, they don’t care what is happening on the other side. Some people live in denial and do not accept what I do, but there are other people who love it. We’ve started to attract various groups of people and some politicians have come out, so things are looking up. Although it is not quite where it should be because with having something like this in Athlone, which is a township, people are hesitant to come into the township. Art, as such, we get in Woodstock or Salt River or Central Cape Town and I feel that that is crazy. People must come to us.
In terms of art as a career path, what is your message to parents who do not want their children to pursue it because they do not view it as an academic achievement or something that one can make a living out of?
I think we need older people, older artists to get out of their their comfort zones and set an example for the young generation, because it is going to be tough, mostly because people are focusing on putting food on the table and I don’t blame them. Over and above that we need to change the mindset of South Africans and break down the idea that art is for the student that doesn’t make it academically. People need to realise that art and books are going somewhere. It will start by us interacting with the art generally, and going back to when actors, poets, artists, writers went back into our communities and told their story.
What is your goal or future plans regarding your gallery and for yourself as an artist?
I don’t want to go to places like Vienna and Venice and paint there in order to qualify as an artist. I want to paint here, locally, in the township in Athlone. My goal is to exhibit my art in Italy, London, Paris etc. and still tell our South African stories and depict emotion through art. I will also be working in Simon’s Town soon.
How do people buy your books as well as your art?
People can visit my gallery in Athlone or they can call Deirdre Alexander who is my wife and manager on +27 83 6437887
Images: All pictures courtesy of Kenneth Alexander.