Skip to main content

The Secret Artist

Published 10 years ago
By Forbes Africa

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.


“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.

Sign Up for Our Newsletter Daily Update

Get the best of Forbes Africa sent straight to your inbox with breaking business news, insights and updates from experts across the continent.
Get this delivered to your inbox, and more info about about our products and services. By signing up for newsletters, you are agreeing to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.
Related Topics: #Art, #Craft, #Dean Simon, #Gallery, #March 2012, #Museum.