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The Secret Artist

Dean Simon toils through the night to craft striking and often uncomfortable images that make people think and argue… and he wants to be reincarnated as an accountant.

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Forty-six-year-old Dean Simon is a simple man. Wearing a printed t-shirt, jeans and black shoes, his house appears as normal as any family home. Well, at least until you turn into the dining area and see three giant Wurlitzer jukeboxes shining brightly at you in their green, red and yellow colours. If you take a closer look inside, you’ll see stacks of vinyl loaded with songs dating back to the blues of the 1950s. You can pick a track, push a button and watch as the selected record slides out and the needle glides on top, playing the tune, indeed a rare sight these days.

Artist Dean Simon at his home in Johannesburg; 19 January 2012 – Photo by Brett Eloff

For an artist who has sold out his work before the opening of an exhibition and has clients in Africa, the Middle East and the United States, Simon shies away from the limelight. He has no website, no Twitter account or Facebook page. He says he tries his best not to associate himself with projects that require hype or media attention.

“Stay under the radar and let your work speak for itself,” he says.

Simon has done this so well that even those in the Johannesburg art world claim not to know him.

His work is confusing; one of his works on Mandela has hung for years, without drawing much comment, on the walls of the plush Saxon Boutique Hotel in Johannesburg.

By contrast, another of his works on Mandela drew fire from the media and art world. The work for a private client, called The Last Supper, depicts Mandela in the place of Jesus, with Ghandi to his right and Martin Luther King Junior to his left.

“It’s always been word of mouth and low key. I find that it is more peaceful not to stick your head out,” he says.

“The gallery scene is based on hype and ego and I’m not interested. By the time you are done with a gallery, they have taken a chunk of your salary. People come to me to buy my work.”

This explains why most of Simon’s clients are private collectors, so most of his best work is kept away from public eyes.

“It’s a double-edged sword, though, because collectors keep their stuff private, but for me it is about building a reputation with the people who are going to buy my stuff.”

Would that explain, to an extent, why he may not be a household name in his own country? Whether it does or not, Simon’s work has managed to land him an exhibition in a museum in Los Angeles in April. It is called From Hurt to Hope, a series of works he had initially compiled into a calendar. It is now to be exhibited at the Museum of Tolerance, a museum aimed at educating people about inequality and injustice.

“My theme is people who had a bad upbringing or hard backgrounds but despite that, not getting bitter, but becoming icons. It’s also based on racism; if these people had been murdered or assassinated, the world wouldn’t be the same,” says Simon.

The aim is to educate the world about people who are not necessarily famous, but who have had an impact on the way the world is today—people such as holocaust survivor Felix Zandman.

“He survived the war; he lived underground for 17 months with his uncle, who taught him maths to keep him from going mad. It’s not stuff people know about.”

Two of his subjects are genocide survivors.

The first is Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who survived the holocaust. He coined the term genocide (derived from the Greek word genos; meaning tribe or race, and the Latin word cide; meaning killing) in order to make such mass killings a crime against humanity. Lemkin died in 1959, aged 59.

Another of Simon’s subjects is Rwandan genocide survivor, Imaculee IIibagiza. Her entire family was wiped out during the war by the time she was 23, while she hid crammed in a church bathroom for 91 days. Since then, she has spread the message of reconciliation and forgiveness among victims and perpetrators, working for the United Nations, writing books and speaking on public platforms.

Camouflage

“Had they been terminated, the world wouldn’t be the same. The exhibition says these people came from nothing and did something selfless that changed the world,” says Simon.

The amount of research and preparation for each work is crucial; the small details can make or break an image.

Talent without preparation is wasted, according to Simon; just doing research on a piece can take him anything from three to four months, excluding the actual time spent drawing. That, on its own, can take a month or more, with 13- to 16-hour days spent working on completing the image.

“You have to make sure the detail is really accurate; it’s like starting a jigsaw puzzle [in your head]. The work is very tiring, though.”

His arched back tells the tale of his labors on the floor of his office.

“I wish I had a more conventional mind, it would make life easier.”

Simon realised during his years at the School of Art and Design in Johannesburg that he could visualise three-dimensionality. Soon after graduating from school, he was conscripted into the army, as were most young white males in pre-democratic South Africa. This is where he realised he could make a comfortable living off his talent.

While being your own boss is something most people aspire to, he admits that it does not come easily.

“Working for yourself involves long hours because if you’re disciplined, it means you never take time off. You work seven days a week. My work starts at three in the morning and never ends before eight or eight thirty in the evening.”

The private client who commissioned him to do The Last Supper (and requested to remain anonymous) says he chose Simon after seeing his work in the Saxon. The original copy received a $2 million offer from a banker.

“Dean is very passionate. It’s what makes him different; he changes his topics. He always does all his work on topics he believes in. He’s a good man, but people were like, ‘How could he have done that?’ [But] when Madiba saw it for the first time, he said, ‘What a brilliant idea’, that it was important for people to learn about these people [in the picture].”

The message behind Simon’s most controversial piece to date was to highlight the good that has come out of Africa, and not to dwell on the ‘dark continent’ stereotype.

“The Last Supper was solely for the client, no one was meant to see it except [them]. We wanted to make a statement about Africa; the people [in it] represent tolerance and principles of peace. There are people in that drawing whom I don’t like. It is not about my own personal feelings, it’s about ideals, it was not meant to be blasphemous. I’m not making any apologies for it.”

Imaculee Rwanda Lady

His latest project, he says, is set to cause even more controversy than The Last Supper.

“I’m not looking forward to it. Next lifetime I’m coming back as an accountant.”

Surely, most people will look forward to it.

Entrepreneurs

Farmer Forays: ‘Creating A New Line Of Business’

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Shola Ladoja; image supplied

Nigerian agripreneur Shola Ladoja, the founder of Simply Green, says the pandemic-induced lockdown brought with it logistic adversity, but also more local sales.  

With the marauding coronavirus disrupting lives and businesses in Nigeria, the financial stability of a majority of the country’s 200 million inhabitants has been severely affected.

The significant toll it has taken on economic activities has forced many small and medium enterprises to reimagine new ways of staying afloat. Covid-19 is also set to radically aggravate food insecurity in Africa. In spite of Nigeria’s dependence on oil, agriculture remains an important cornerstone for its economy, providing employment for millions especially in the informal sector.

The threat of starvation is so present that in a public address in May, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, urged Nigerian farmers to produce enough for the country to eat, saying that the country has “no money to import” food.

But every cloud has a silver lining. The food shortage has presented some agripreneurs in Nigeria with serendipitous opportunities.

Shola Ladoja is the founder of Simply Green, which is a farm-to-table company specializing in vegetables, fruits, juices, spices and herbs. The border lockdown has meant that many of the retail and supermarket chains can no longer import foreign produce into the country.

But this hurdle created a new opportunity for Ladoja.

“[Previously], I tried to get my juices into local stores in Nigeria but they all turned me down and most of them wanted to buy imported juices. The lockdown meant that they had to buy a local brand like mine because they could not get them from abroad anymore. We are now able to sell a lot more during this time than previous years,” says Ladoja.

On the logistics side, however, Ladoja has also felt the pinch of the pandemic like most business that require consistent movement of goods and services. The lockdown scenario prevented his workers from coming in and as a result, the company’s daily delivery of juices, has come to an abrupt stop.  

Ladoja has had to start thinking outside the box to make ends meet.

“We have come up with a fruit and vegetable box, which we sell directly on our website to our customers. So, they can now buy lettuce, kale and carrots, which we have never done before. So, this period has forced us to think about how we can expand the business and this time we actually created a new line of business, which was not in the plans for this year,” says Ladoja.

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), even before the Covid-19 crisis, farmers had not been able to satisfy the demands of Nigeria’s population.

“I feel like the government should give out grants and loans and support for small businesses so that they don’t crash. I have friends who have complained they are going to shut down their businesses because they haven’t been paid for two months. A lot of people cannot sell their produce in Lagos because the markets are closed which is going to affect a lot of farmers at this time,” says Ladoja.

Nigeria used to import over a million tonnes of rice from Thailand annually. That number has been significantly reduced with the implementation of high import taxes. This has led to an abnormal increase in food prices in Nigeria since the onset of the coronavirus with the UN estimating the number of people facing acute food security stands to rise to 265 million globally in 2020 as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.

Nigeria has substantially increased domestic rice production in the pandemic but is still a long way from reaching the levels needed for the country to sufficiently feed itself. Coupled with the decline in global oil prices, it is safe to say the adverse economic impact of Covid-19 on Africa’s most populous country is going to be felt for a long time to come.

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All For Grooming Future Leaders

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Katlego Thwane has had to dip into his own savings, with the Covid-19 crisis, to fund his noble cause, teaching the underprivileged in a South African township.

He is in his twenties, yet turning around the destiny of underprivileged young people around him.

Katlego Thwane, a 28-year-old born and bred in South Africa’s lively township of Soweto, is an educator and founder of the Atlegang Bana Foundation here that caters to primary school learners who struggle to keep up at school and need additional help.

“Our foundation also provides for needy learners from underprivileged backgrounds. One of my biggest campaigns at the foundation every year is to give confidence and motivation to learners for the year ahead,” says Thwane.

He has bagged numerous awards and accolades for his work, as a 2017 Young Community Shaper, 2018 Lead SA hero and featuring on live television show Big Up on SABC Mzansi in 2018.

Growing up, he was a “naughty boy”, as he describes himself, but says many are now astonished at the serious, ambitious young man he has become.

“Teaching has always been a passion of mine. I love seeing change, transformation and grooming leaders, and value their education while being innovative in taking our country forward.”

Thwane has recently established a clothing brand, BANA, under the Atlegang Bana Foundation. He is also currently handing out food parcels to the needy in his community, in partnership with Hollywoodbets.

“The virus has affected us immensely with many parents losing their jobs or taking salary cuts, we are not receiving the financial support as before. This has led to me [dipping] into my own personal pocket and [using it] to buy tutors data for teaching virtually,” says Thwane.

Most schools continue operating online because learners haven’t as yet returned to school, however, this has come with its share of setbacks.

Makosha Masedi, a parent of a Grade 4 learner, says her challenges come with network issues and understanding the tasks given to the child.

“Some of the programs that the work is loaded on to is not friendly for all devices, so submitting and retrieving becomes a problem, as also understanding some of the work,” rues Masedi.

But Thwane powers on, hoping for a better tomorrow, for himself and his country.

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The Mother-Daughter Duo Behind A New Inclusive Community Teaching Budding Professionals How To Better Engage At Work

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Mother-daughter cofounders Edith Cooper and Jordan Taylor launched Medley to help young professionals gain the skills they need to bring their most authentic selves to work. COURTESY OF MEDLEY

Edith Cooper, who spent more than 20 years as an executive at Goldman Sachs, knows what it’s like to stand out in a workplace. Being one of few people of color in a sea of white faces over the course of her career hasn’t been easy. But rather than dwell on this reality, Cooper, who now sits on the boards of Etsy and Slack, has championed her differences. That’s what helped her rise through the ranks at the bank to eventually head its human resources department, an accomplishment she says was a result of her ability to connect with people of all backgrounds.

That quality would continue to work to her advantage: As Goldman Sachs evolved, so did its staff. Diversity was reflected not only in employees’ skin colors and genders, but also in their ages and geographical origins. Cooper was awakened to the fact that if the company was going to thrive, it would need to create an environment wherein its multifaceted staff could feel comfortable embracing their differences and, in turn, learn from them. 

“If you can figure out an environment where people can thrive together, it’s powerful,” Cooper says. But it’s a process that takes time, especially if newer, more inexperienced employees aren’t equipped with the proper skills to navigate this balance between professionalism and open expression. 

That is in part what inspired Cooper’s new startup, Medley, which she launched with her daughter Jordan Taylor, a former chief of staff at Mic and Harvard Business School Baker Scholar, to provide a community in which young professionals can gain the skills they need to bring their most authentic selves to work without fear. In light of the heightened tension surrounding ongoing racial injustice that’s inevitably seeping into workplace communication, it’s an ideal time to learn this skill.

Taylor has also had her fair share of experiences being the “only one in the room,” but as an emerging leader, rather than an established executive like her mother. Graduating in the top 5% of her class and being one the first 20 Black students to be named a Baker Scholar meant she was constantly figuring out how to relate to peers in predominantly white spaces. She figured it out, but Medley is a platform she wishes had been around when she was finding her voice among people whose backgrounds were much different than hers.

Medley groups young professionals in their 20s and 30s with other like-minded members whose workplace values, concerns and priorities align. The professionals that make up these eight-person groups differ, however, in terms of gender and ethnic background, which Cooper and Taylor hope will translate to increased empathy that members can apply within their respective workplaces.

“This idea of people being able to bring their true selves to work and to be able to talk through what that looks like is at the core of what Medley is offering,” says Cooper.

In addition to full access to workshops, panels and conversations led by experts across industries, members commit to a 90-minute virtual meeting each month, facilitated by a Medley-certified coach and focused on addressing and reflecting on ongoing experiences in their personal and professional lives. Cooper credits Medley’s robust network of coaches to the guidance she gained from Merche Del Valle, former global head of coaching at Goldman Sachs and a certified lifestyle, nutrition and wellness coach.

Merging personal wellness and professional development in group discussions is a priority. “You can’t just look at your career in a vacuum,” says Taylor. “In order to meet your potential, the ability to have a more holistic approach is incredibly important.”

To ensure that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds have the ability to join the community, Medley offers a sliding scale fee ranging from $50 to $250, depending on the financial situation of prospective members. Cooper and Taylor are also in conversations with companies interested in partnering with Medley to give their staff reimbursement for membership. 

With the help of investors including Away cofounder Jen Rubio, dtx company founder and CEO Tim Armstrong and MIC cofounder and former CEO Chris Altchek, who contributed more than $1 million to the project, Medley was ready to launch in May 2020 as an in-person membership hub in New York City. Shelter-in-place mandates halted the launch, but also presented an opportunity for Medley to instead be virtual and incorporate international members. The more springing corporate workers that can benefit from the community’s aim to build the next generation of confident, communicative professionals the better, the mother-daughter team notes.

“Medley gives people an opportunity to be a better human in relation to the people they work with and quite frankly in society,” Taylor says.

Brianne Garrett, Forbes Staff, Leadership

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