It wasn’t your ordinary art theft. Whoever stole South African artist Conor Mccreedy’s painting of Nelson Mandela had a strange way of doing it.
Mccreedy was on his way to fetch the painting from a vault in New York. As he entered the vault he noticed a four-foot hole in the ceiling. He thought it was strange considering the ceiling was one meter thick concrete. He guessed that the company must be doing maintenance on the building. He then found a broken lock. What he saw inside stunned him.
“There in my storage room, in place of my painting, was a pile of original photographs of Yoko Ono, John Lennon and Mick Jagger from the sixties on the Hampton River… It was like a scene out of a movie.”
Mccreedy’s painting of Mandela, along with a sketchbook of 30 drawings, were gone. A few hours later, his storage room was ringed with yellow tape.
“We had the CIA, CSI, FBI and Interpol all there. It was the first time meeting Frank Shea, my private investigator; he literally could have walked out of a movie. Shea had this comb over and perfect hair, with a perfect red tie and a pinstripe suit complete with Mont Blanc pen, like Donnie Brasco or 007. Then I thought to myself this must be a joke,” he says.
It wasn’t. No one could answer the riddle of Lennon and Jagger either. It was June and at the time Mandela was sick. Mccreedy thought the heist had something to do with hate mail, most of it from South Africa, claiming his portrait was merely jumping on the band wagon.
“People were running me down, saying I was a con. It was sad. But every time I get a negative comment my art goes up in value. Why do it if you hate my art? If you hate my childlike blue splash? It took me 27 years to do that blue splash,” he says.
The next day; it got worse. At 6AM, New York time, Mccreedy’s insurance company phoned him. The painting was insured in Africa, not New York. The only thing to do was for Mccreedy to fly back to South Africa, knock on the door of the art collector who bought the painting and buy it back with an envelope containing R100,000 ($9,280).
“It wasn’t even my favorite piece. I did it in Europe in 2008… The painting was in my trademark MccreedyBlue on a A4 canvas board, but that was it,” he says.
The robbery made headlines around the world and the story was just beginning. Interpol, the international criminal police organization, declared the missing artwork was priceless; it gave Mccreedy a claim to be the only living artist to have a painting declared priceless.
Almost a year later, clues are as elusive as the painting itself. The artist has found a way to recoup the loss. Mccreedy is now selling 46664 replica prints, the same as Mandela’s prison number, for $100 each. Five percent goes to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg.
It’s just one of the bizarre stops along the way for Mccreedy, who was born and bred in Johannesburg and making a name for himself in New York. At school he was a talented footballer whose trademark was scoring from corner kicks. There he had a chance meeting with Mandela that changed his life.
“When I was eleven I had the opportunity to meet Mandela personally. Out of a hall filled with 600 school boys he chose to speak to me. I’ll never forget it. He said to me ‘you have powerful eyes, use them’. Mandela and Picasso are my greatest inspirations,” Mccreedy says.
New York didn’t start well for Mccreedy. He was broke and dropped out of Art College when blind chance landed his first solo exhibition.
“I bought an old third-hand Iranian carpet at a store and I needed someone to help me move it. So we went to my studio, a four-flight walk up the stairs, and the man helping me comes up and sees all this art that I’m working on, adorned on my walls, and he’s like: ‘This stuff is crazy! You know what? You’ve got to meet someone.’”
The carpet carrier knew the curator at the National Arts Club, in Manhattan, just down the road. It resulted in Mccreedy’s first ever exhibition sold out two days before the opening. What’s more his former lecturers from art school, who had written him off, came to the opening and were impressed, Mccreedy says.
These days Mccreedy is no longer a struggling artist. His art is selling from Africa to Asia. On the morning of meeting FORBES AFRICA in March, he sold a painting for $33,000.
“Art is an investment and can bring in big business. Art auctions in South Africa sell for R450 million ($42 million) a year, but I’ve seen auctions in New York sell for that in one night. People haven’t realized the opportunities art can bring,” he says.
Clearly Mccreedy has.
The Art Of Survival: The Art Of Adire Gave This Textile Artist Global Fame, She Now Educates Generations Of Women In Nigeria
Textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaye worked as a construction laborer and carried water and firewood to survive. The art of adire gave her global fame and she is now educating generations of women in Nigeria.
There was no way Nike Davies-Okundaye could look the other way. For after all, she too had been a victim in her early teens.
Too many women were being pushed down the traditional path of marriage and child-rearing in her country.
Born in 1951 in Ogidi-Ijumu, a small village in western Nigeria known for its spectacular rock formations and traditional art industry, Davies-Okundaye resolved to fight this practice four decades ago.
“By the age of 13, they wanted to marry me off because my father had no money. I had to run away from home and join a traveling theater. I said I didn’t want to marry and wanted to pursue art,” recalls the internationally-renowned Lagos-based artist.
Not wanting to become one of six wives to a minister, Davies-Okundaye found her escape through adire, the name given to the Yoruba craft of tie-and-dye where indigo-dyed cloth is made using a variety of resist-dyeing techniques. Growing up in a predominantly art and craft household, Davies-Okundaye is a fifth-generation artist who decided to take the craft seriously due to poverty.
“I had no money to go to school and the first education parents give you is to teach you what they do. So, when I finished primary six and I had no support to go to secondary school, I said to myself, ‘let me master art so I can teach other women to also use their hand to make a living through their own artwork’.”
Davies-Okundaye was forced to work in the male-dominated construction sector, carrying concrete in pans to builders in order to save one shilling, just enough to buy a yard of fabric to create what she called wall-hanging art.
Her goal was to use the traditional wax-resist methods to design patterned fabric in a dazzling array of tints and hues. The adire design is the result of hand-painted work carried out mostly by women and through that, Davies-Okundaye saw a way to help women to become economically empowered. After all, her first break in life came as a result of that.
“There was no other job I was doing apart from adire. I was lucky the American government came to Nigeria to recruit an African who will teach African Americans how to make traditional textiles or crafts in the state. That is how I was lucky and got picked.”
Davies-Okundaye was the only woman in a class of 10 men who were flown to Maine in northeastern United States in 1974. That is where her whole outlook on life changed.
“Before I went to America, I used to carry three drums of water every day and carry firewood to be able to survive. It was like a breakthrough in my life when I reached America. I said ‘is this heaven?’ I was the only woman in the class and all the men were learning women’s looms and I kept telling them ‘this is for women’ and they said ‘yes, in America, what a man can do, a woman can also do’.”
This was in stark contrast to what she knew to be true in Nigeria at the time.
“If your husband is an artist, you are not allowed to do art. In the 1960s, if your husband has a PhD, you are not allowed to also have a PhD. You had to give room for your husband to be your boss.”
She decided to beat those age-old stereotypes.
As one of 15 wives to her then-husband at the time, Davies-Okundaye, with her newfound knowledge gained in America, started a revolution at home. She encouraged the other wives to create their own art business using adire.
“I said ‘if you learn this, you can earn a living by yourself and get your power because your money is your power’ and that is how they also started learning it. I didn’t stop sharing the knowledge there. I gathered girls on the streets who were selling kola nuts and peanuts and started training them. I said ‘if this textile can take me to America, let me teach other people’,” says Davies-Okundaye.
And that has been her calling ever since. Davies-Okundaye is the founder and director of four art centers, which offer free training to 150 young artists in Nigeria in visual, musical and performing arts.
One of the centers is the largest art gallery in West Africa comprising over 7,000 art works.
“They used to get the police to arrest me because they said I was trying to teach feminism in Nigeria because I went to America. They said I was going to corrupt our Nigerian women but I believe God sent me to liberate a lot of women who have the passion for what makes them happy but are afraid to do it because of what people will say. I say do what makes you happy always!”
Why This Photographer Looked Up During The Lockdown
Steven Benjamin chose to focus on the bird life in his garden in Cape Town to escape the confines of the lockdown.
During South Africa’s five-week shutdown (the country is still on Level 4 restrictions), Cape Town-born underwater photographer Steven Benjamin more used to sharks, whales and dolphins, used the period to look up instead – and indulge in bird-watching, another passion of his.
“Ever since the age of five or six, I have been interested in birds. I was dyslexic as a young child and I still have my first bird book where I ‘ticked’ backwards. I was trying to identify the birds that flew into my pre-school class and begged my mom to let me mark off what I’d seen, so birding has always been a passion,” says Benjamin, who also runs a seal-snorkeling business.
He has spent his life capturing South Africa’s marine world, and now, Benjamin had to redirect his focus to his Kalk Bay garden during the lockdown to photograph Cape Town’s resident birdlife.
He says photographing these feathered beauties is a way to bring joy during these uncertain times.
“They are so beautiful but incredibly difficult to photograph because they are shy and extremely fast. Photographing birds is a challenge but it creates a mental space to observe and admire nature.”
Soon after the lockdown started, Benjamin put white sugar in his bird feeder every morning and enjoyed the sight of local birds and documented them. He posted the images on Instagram and that garnered some online attention.
“The lockdown has made me relax and take the time to do things I would never have gotten around to doing. I settled on this project, which I work on every day. I’m always adding something new to the scene and there are always new birds and interactions happening. It’s made the days fly by,” he says.
During the lockdown, there was only one male Cape Sugar Bird that landed in his garden. This spectacular bird is unique to South Africa and mostly only found in the Western Cape. All of this will go into an exhibition Benjamin is working towards in Cape Town.
‘Our Home Became The Film Set, Blankets Became Props, Windows Became Locations’
A poem exclusively penned and performed in lockdown in the US for the readers of FORBES AFRICA, by Rwandan artist Malaika Uwamahoro.
Malaika Uwamahoro, an artist born in Rwanda, and a Theatre Studies BA graduate from Fordham University in New York City, has performed her own poetry on stages around the world including at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and at the African Union summits in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kigali (Rwanda).
In 2014, she made her Off-Broadway debut at Signature Theatre in the world premiere of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho.
Currently resident in Portland, Maine, in the United States, she speaks to FORBES AFRICA about her life in lockdown, and about a poem she penned exclusively for the readers of the magazine: “To fight this pandemic, essential workers and medical doctors are doing their best on the frontlines to ensure everyone in need gets the necessary support and best care possible… Before we are all choked and out of breath just by thinking about this, I extend this poetry piece as an invitation to look inward.”
How did she come up with the poem, titled I Don’t Mind!, and its accompanying video?
“It was late in the night, my fiancé was fast asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘how do I really feel about all this, what are my true thoughts about this pandemic, what can I do’? I opened my notes and the words began to flow.”
A few days later, she shared the poem with her fiancé, Christian Kayiteshonga, a filmmaker.
“We had previously been pondering ways to make art in our home. This poem seemed like the perfect push to set us in our new path. Our home became the film set, using blankets and cake mix as props, windows and office space as locations, myself as the talent, him as the crew, and now you as the audience,” says Uwamahoro, who also performed for the ‘In the Spotlight’ segment at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban, South Africa, on March 6.
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