Jet-setting from city to city doing what you love, all while contributing to a greater cause, may seem like the ultimate goal for many, but for British-born South African Sonny, this is his reality. Exploring issues of conservation and the eternal cultural significance of endangered animals through massive murals, sculptures and prints in his ‘To The Bone’ Series, Sonny has managed to craft a unique and dreamlike career.
That being said, the road to the top isn’t always easy – in the latest of our ‘Creatives Abroad’ series Sonny sat down with us to chat about street-art confidence, shareability, work complications, upcoming projects and his heritage.
The making of ‘Nanuk’, the giant polar bear I painted as part of @baselhouse in #wynwood at the end of last year! #totheboneproject Art cameos by @sebastiancoolidge @arlin_graff @milestoland @olavolo @pedro_amos_ @queenandreaone @zed1_marco @dodo_ose @dourone @cloehakakian . . ? @tesscunliffe Edit @ryanguerilla
How did you manage to enter the international market with your art? Did you hit a specific breakthrough when you managed to meet commercial success?
Well I guess it helped that I started with street art, which has a really big international following online that is growing all the time. Plus, my subject matter often speaks to very global issues, which I think grabbed the attention of the international market. From my very first mural, my pieces were shared by loads of blogs from around the world and so although I was painting only in South Africa at first, my audience has always been international. It also helps that people often say my style is unique, which makes it easier for people to recognise my work no matter where they are in the world I guess. Through stuff like social media, it’s much easier these days to connect with art buyers & curators etc., as they’re able to follow my work and often get in touch with me directly.
Being based in South Africa, how much time is actually spent in the motherland?
Lately not a lot of time at all, in the past year and a half I’ve spent less than half my time in South Africa. I skip a lot of winter so I’m not complaining!
Having a very physical art practice, how do you manage to travel with your equipment?
I don’t really travel with a lot of equipment. Luckily you can find spray cans or paint stores in most cities in the world and that goes for all the other materials and equipment I use. Its normally organised for me ahead of my arrival, otherwise, a trip to the local hardware store is always fun!
What was your most challenging artwork?
Hmmm, I think my amur leopard mural I did in Vladivostok Far East Russia last year was up there for sure! The people there don’t speak any English at all, so I had to have a translator 24/7. Even then it was still very broken, which proved problematic when I needed such specific materials and paint. My first wall was unsafe and problematic and the project had to be relocated, plus I had paint issues and we had to fly paint in, as local supplies were tricky to get. On top of it all I had weather issues and had to be called off the lift which was a first for me. Haha… it was fun! Great city though wow!
A teaser of my trip to Far East Russia for #totheboneproject ??Full video link in bio.?? . I got my hands on an abandoned university building on the iconic hill above Vladivostok and painted a giant Amur Leopard looking down over the city. I was also lucky enough to visit the 'Land of the Leopards' to see the good work that's being done to protect these beautiful creatures; the rarest cat in the world! ? Give it a watch if only for the awesome soundtrack by the amazing @mumiytroll ?. . ?by @tesscunliffe Edit by @ryanguerilla Drone @batrshin_ildar. . Huge thanks to the sponsors @ifawru @far_eastern_leopards @vroxfestival
Artists can often be very self-conscious about their work – fearing rejection and lacking confidence. As a graffiti artist I’d imagine the anxiety being quite challenging as you have to make use of massive spaces to begin with (ride or die I guess?) Did you always feel confident about making massive pieces or did you have to psych yourself up to do them?
The first one most definitely. Painting a very large street mural for everybody to see and judge is quite intimidating compared to having one client to please. But you get used to it. I don’t stress much anymore, it always works out if I’ve done the prep correctly beforehand. The biggest stress is usually around the weather and making sure that I complete the murals in time to make flights!
So far, what country has been the most welcoming to your message? And what advice would you have to South African artists looking to take their work internationally?
Every country I have visited and painted in has been very welcoming so it’s hard to pick just one. The only advice I can offer really is to be unique and just go for it. Oh, and work your ASS OFF!!
What can we expect from Sonny next?
I have some interesting new artwork coming up now, that I’ve been waiting to share for a while. I’m mixing a human element into my work in my “future tribe” themed work, both mural and canvas! Keep a look out 😉
Lastly! (This one’s kinda personal) Do you consider yourself an Englishman or South African?
It’s weird. Both! I mostly consider myself to be South African since I’ve lived here since I was a child… but I was born in the UK and my family lives there, plus I have a lot of English traits… and let’s not get started with who I support in football!