South African-based American artist, Gary Stephens works in a variety of media including painting, drawing, printmaking, and photography. His works have become veritable sites to assert the African identity and have been featured in many exhibitions across the globe. As an artist straddling several continents and cultures, his creativity stems from his experiences living among societies and the people he encounters on his extensive sojourns around Latin America, Asia, Europe, and Africa. In modern times, the social significance and personal meaning of traditional hairstyles have been forgotten. Instead, ancient styles are re-born, bearing several elements of modern fashion. Stephens’ system of strings and vertical pleats are a metaphor for the influence of modernity and the spread of global capitalism on post colonial Nigeria. He raises questions of hybridity and identity as his subjects adorn sunglasses, modern earrings and decorative ornaments in their hair. His works are strongly individual, their juxtaposing, providing a sense of urgency to an immediate purpose – to challenge the various stereotypes thrust on the Nigerian while addressing issues of personal identity, self discovery and history.
You were born in Arizona, and now live and work in Johannesburg. How do you feel about being described as an African artist, and your work as understanding Africa’s history and present?
Every artist wants to feel their work contributes positively to society and will be valued, so I am quite honored by the question. I would never claim to have an understanding of Africa’s cultural history, but I am quite fascinated by its present. My work pays homage to current urban African trends in hair braiding, head scarves and how people choose to present themselves in public. I document, enjoy and hopefully raise awareness of the beauty and sense of style I observe. The ultimate compliment is when a young African friend comes to tell me about a hairstyle or hat they saw someone wearing. This makes me feel in my small way that I am contributing to people appreciating and noticing the beauty in their own culture.
As Nigeria marks her centenary, how significant are your works in documenting her cultural heritage?
I am very inspired by the hair styles, scarves, bling, modern fashion trends, traditional head gears, ankara wear, and designer clothing I see on the streets and in the markets of Lagos. I am fascinated by the mixture and consider this the current cultural trend in Nigeria. So I would draw a woman with traditional braids wearing designer sunglasses and consider this quite a natural reflection of urban African culture. If my work records and documents this moment in Nigerian history and how people dress, then I am quite pleased.
What draws you to a particular hairstyle?
By paying attention to braid styles when I am in out in public, it brings me an extra level of enjoyment and appreciation. Nigeria is very full of inspiration for me. I try not to judge the styles but just observe how people present themselves in public. Cascades of extensions or symmetrical rows of pleating, both inspire me equally.
How did you come to the decision to become an artist?
I am lucky because even in first grade, I loved art and always spent hours after school making things. It’s that feeling of losing track of time while creativity takes over and working for hours without thinking. I cherish that feeling and even now, it is how I center myself and recharge.
You admire the late iconic photographer, J.D. Ojeikere and exhibited with him last year in Lagos. What other artists may have influenced your work?
Lately, I am studying Andy Warhol’s Pop Art. I like the way he focused on everyday aspects of culture and made people appreciate the beauty in the common. I strive to be doing that with my African work. I am also studying the work of Yaacov Agum, an Isreali artist, that made geometric kinetic art with colors that shift when viewed from different angles. Another influence on my work is Jesus Soto, who used systems of wires and hanging rods in front of his work to create a sense of motion. All these artists have had a big influence on what I am doing at the moment.
You work in a large variety of media; printmaking, photography, charcoal, acrylic, and performance. Which is most vital to your practice, and how do they work together to achieve your artistic goals?
I wouldn’t say I think of one as more important than the other. I normally use photography to capture the images, so the process starts with photos. Lately, I have been doing a lot of charcoal drawing and it has had a positive impact on my painting and printmaking. Nothing like black-and-white to force you to pay attention to how light hits a subject and how to create visual drama with darks and lights. I like to experiment and push forward so I change mediums to keep myself challenged. I think they all still reflect my appreciation of modern African style. The performances I have orchestrated have the same message as my painting and drawing–to create appreciation for the beauty in everyday African life. Events such as wrapping a head scarf, braiding hair and wearing a hat, are so common that they can become invisible in the streets. By bringing these activities into the gallery setting, viewers respect and honor these beautiful parts of their African lives.
Are you thinking of embracing other media such as video and installation in your work?
My artistic ideas usually grow from earlier ideas in a natural way. I do sometimes shoot videos when I am exploring Lagos braiding culture. I love it when the braiders’ hands fly as they are wrapping, and when they use a flame to burn off the ends. This would be a nice thing to share with audiences in other parts of the world. Since I am rather shy and not a performer, I hardly consider my “performances” to be actual performance art. I have a concept and I get braiders to come and perform their skills. I have the vision of what will happen but the craft is not mine, although it complements my work. I really like that it makes me engage with braiders, and searching for the people who will braid is part of my fun. My performances become part of how I engage with the culture.
You’ve recently hired a huge studio of about 270m2, please tell us more about your recent experiments, and collaborations with other artists.
Yes, this new studio is an artist’s dream with big industrial windows and lots of light. My work is getting larger and I am working harder as my career grows. It gives me energy when I get to show in other countries and travel to art fairs. I’ve been working towards this goal my whole life, and so now I have enough space to stand back to make several pieces at the same time and study a painting from afar. An artist’s studio is so important because you spend many hours working and want a space that makes you feel good.
I love living in South Africa because I have many younger artist friends and we share energy and inspire each other. I plan to host my friends and invite them to come work in my space. Having a successful career is great but it is not what makes me get up in the morning. I love the creative process and making art together with others who also love art. So far, a few friends that took a stencil and graffiti workshop with me, have come for a day and we worked together. I have these huge tables that were left in the space from when it was a sewing factory-perfect for a group. My art assistant is coming on his days off, to work on a huge installation. It makes me really happy that I can offer him a space to grow his own art. I even bought a pool table at auction so after work, we can have a game and a laugh. I have space for it.
Your performance piece at Art 14 drew praise and critical mention, please tell us about your challenges and motivation behind this work.
The challenge was arriving in London only a few days before the fair and hiring the Nigerian women who would braid for me, and be willing travel to the fair. I was very lucky because one of the fair organizers helped me by going to Peckham to make some initial contacts. I was very pleased with the result. The braiders had that fun, out-going Nigerian spirit, so they got into having the audience watch and ask questions. It had the feel of seeing braiding in Nigeria or South Jocelynn, Scarf and Hoops, 2014, mixed media on wood, 103x83cm Africa; the women were chatting and laughing. I had posters with braid styles, a soundtrack with street noise and African music. The London audience seemed to really appreciate and honor the braiding tradition and that was my motivation. In Africa, braiding is an everyday sight but for the fair-goers, it was a new experience.
What next for Gary Stephens?
I am currently into a new series I call Afro Pop Art using stencils, graffiti and newspaper on wooden panels. The subject matter is still African but they are very colorful. I am making my own background patterns based on Nigerian ankara. A few years ago, I painted directly on ankara but now I feel like reproducing the patterns on my own. I want to show the paintings in groups of repeated images like Warhol did with Marilyn Monroe. The inspiration came from the location of my last art studio in the part of Joburg where all the graffiti artists are very active. I got very attracted and played with some spray paint. I still tend toward my usual attraction to detail, and I am spending many hours cutting very intricate stencils, which I layer. I want to eventually make some very large pieces. I plan to stay with my African themes and hope to get opportunities to travel to more African countries for residencies and to document the variety in various African cultures. At the moment, I am noticing women with headscarves – how they tie them, the colors and fabric patterns. It’s a rich and very iconic African subject matter.