‘The heart wants to do what the heart wants to do’ – a QnA with Dion Cupido

None other than Beyoncé snapped up a portrait of a woman by Dion Cupido when she was last in town. With the artist’s latest exhibition ‘Plain Reality’ on show, we speak with Cupido about his first large-scale installation for Nando’s Orpington and his latest solo exhibition.

What inspires your work?

At the end of the day my work is about the stuff of my life that’s close to me, and I think all my paintings come from that place. I work a lot from memory and I feel like I work out my issues on canvas. I’m no psychologist but I’m really interested in the psychological aspect of my work. The niche and connection that we make with each other as male and female, and the tension that is there between us all the time is to a large degree what I try to play around with in my work, largely because I’m trying to work out my “mommy” issues. 

It’s funny with parents – no matter what they do a child always has a desire to mend that relationship. I suppose that can be a good thing and a bad thing because some things that get done to kids are unforgivable, but we find ways.

My mom and I have a very difficult relationship. It’s always been like that. We haven’t talked in years. As a boy I think you’re meant to break away from your mom at some stage and then come closer again, but for myself I don’t have that. There’s always a conflict. I love mom, but I feel it’s healthier for me to keep my distance. I don’t wish her any harm or wish her anything bad, but the kind of people we both are, I don’t think it’s time to be around each other.

My parents got divorced when I was young. My memory of my dad is that I liked him, but then he was gone. At one point later on we did connect, but nothing further. I suppose for the longest time I felt like he was still my dad. I never had any anger. I just felt close to him. A few years ago things shifted and I felt ‘you know what, you could have made an effort’. My art making comes from these spaces. I paint fast and that’s part of my process, I won’t say there’s no thinking happening, but it’s automatic. I don’t mind delving in and scratching around my memories and feelings. And this is where my wife comes in – I’m happily married and have a full-time, constant relationship – because if I have a good day that impacts on my work. The work I’ve been doing for this exhibition seems a lot lighter than my previous works and I only realized that late in the process. I don’t know if that was me healing. I really don’t know. It’s not always that simple. What I do know is that even though I’m still a person who not so long ago hated the idea of hanging my issues on other peoples walls,  when it comes to making art the heart wants to do what the heart wants to do.

Untitled 1, Mixed media on canvas, 90 x 70cm. On exhibition at World Art

What’s the story behind the name of your solo exhibition?

The exhibition is called ‘Plain Reality’. The Plain is Mitchell’s Plain. I always go there in my work. It’s where I grew up. I’ll never get rid of that. As a teen I was one of these very daydreamy kids. I think I took it to an unhealthy place. I wasn’t really in touch with reality. Life for me was all about fun and fantasy. I guess that’s where the reality of growing up in Mitchells Plain comes in and I see those same behaviours in the way people in Mitchell’s Plain dress. They’re wearing R1500 sneakers but struggling to pay rent and buy food. It’s the same experience I had – I think it’s about trying to portray this image or dream of being in or going to a better place. I think in growing up I had a disconnect with my reality. I remember walking down streets at night and the next day I’d hear about really bad things that had happened on that street that evening. I guess when there is no choice you just have to accept where you are and live, and you don’t pay attention to the bad things. You know, it’s a bit like when mom and dad are having an argument and a child is sitting in that space. If fighting like that rarely happens, then the child will be very disturbed, but if it happens a lot the children learn to switch off to the violence that is around them. I think in Mitchells Plain that same behavior exists in the bigger picture. People just switch off and try and find their happy place in daily life. Once you’ve moved out, and then go back to visit, it’s hard because you understand the violence and are unable to walk as freely as you did before. It’s sad for me because I love the people there and I have family there. Now that I have kids I speak to a lot of people there and if I tell them I don’t think Mitchell’s Plain is a great place to raise kids, they say, “what do you mean, what’s wrong with me?’. It makes me think about how our sense of self and our sense of place are so intertwined. For me, having lived there, moved on, and as a regular visitor with strong emotional attachments to Mitchell’s Plain, I feel like I’ve been able to experience different realities. This exhibition is called Plain Reality, but it was initially going to be called ‘A little bit of heaven and a little bit of hell’.

Coloured In, oil on canvas, 140x160cm. Exhibited at Johannesburg Art Fair 2016

Tell us about your focus on women in your portraiture.

Women come in exactly for the reasons I’ve just talked about. I think they saved my life as a teenager in Mitchells Plain. I was totally fascinated by women. I could have been in gangs, and I used to sit with the guys in gangs, and maybe because I was just “never there” I didn’t consider becoming a part of gang life. Around that time I also started to notice graffiti and street art and that kindled my interest in art.  My mom played a huge role. She was very strict but she also exposed me to the outside world. Those days growing up (during the  time of racial segregation in the Apartheid era) people from Mitchells Plain rarely got to see Cape Town, but my Mom took me to galleries and museums in the city. She was a good mom. She always wanted the best for us I suppose. My mom taught me how to draw a cowboy, a kitten – my first memory of drawing is of her teaching me.

Special offer. Oil on canvas. 180 x 160cm

Tell us about your call for portrait subjects on Facebook.

Yes, ahead of this exhibition I called out on Facebook for women who would be willing to let me paint them. It’s the first time I’ve done that. Keep in mind that my Facebook community is predominantly my Mitchells Plain community, so this is who a reached. Not many people responded. I think my community was very suspicious about what I was up to, particularly since the thinking there is that art is not a real career anyway! I found some women from family connecting me with people they thought would be suitable. I asked for beautiful women. They thought I meant pretty girls. That’s not how I see it. I think all women are beautiful. There were one or two women who approached me independently, which I think is super brave.  At the same time I could see their insecurities with their self-image, and that they were also thinking, “I don’t know if I’m good enough, or pretty enough”. But that’s not what my portraits are about. One of the subject’s was a model and it actually took me a while to get past all that beauty. The beauty is in the interest. If you look there is a lot of interesting beauty to see.

Ghetto Love. Oil on canvas. 120 x 100cm

You’ve invited the women you’ve painted to your exhibition. How do you want them to feel when they walk out of the door?

I want them to know that they are larger than life. At the same time I do worry about that because of the fantasy element, as we all ultimately have to come back to reality – but I believe it’s good to have a healthy self-image. When I think of the women I painted I instantly think of my kids – I’m always applauding everything they do, even though I worry about how they’ll manage the reality of reality. When I consider the alternative I know that applauding and building self esteem is so important, because I know what its like to be knocked down. I want each women to feel a part of something important, like a moment in history that they were intrinsically part of that is on canvas and will be around for a long time, and hopefully become very important works of art.  To carry something like that inside oneself can transcend current reality.

Let Me Love You. Oil on Canvas. 140x160cm. Exhibited at Johannesburg Art Fair 2017.

Do you name the artworks for the subjects?

I could never call them the name of the women because there is too much of myself in there. They become self-portraits.

Oh Mother. Oil on canvas. 140 x 160 cm. Exhibited at Johannesburg Art Fair 2017

What’s new about your work in ‘Plain Reality’?

It’s the first time I’m doing collage, or wallpaper work. Dressing a canvas is similar to the way we dress, ourselves, our walls, our spaces. Wallpaper has always been for a certain group of people – you aspire to have wallpaper, you want ‘that kind’ of furniture. But under this wallpaper is cement. No matter where you are, whether you live in Camps Bay or Constantia, our houses are all made from the same materials, and so I play with that idea in how it relates to human substance. I also like the experience of the breaking down of the image and then putting it back together, you know, in the same way that memory works. I have a picture in my mind of a certain person or event, but it’s affected by perception as much as reality, and I know that whatever ideas I have will affect that image. Everyone remembers in a different way, and this work speaks to that.

Untitled 3, 120x100cm. Exhibited at Cape Town Art Fair 2017.

How did painting a large-scale portrait in Nando’s Orpington change your life?

Nando’s Orpington was my first mural and since then I’ve had a huge desire to do murals around the city, and particularly in Mitchells Plain. I think in the near future I will be working on that scale, and I like the idea of painting on bridges. I’ve always liked huge works of art, there’s this feeling that the bigger the work the more I immerse myself in the work. I feel more inside a big work than in a little painting. I think working on a little painting is like looking through a window.  But, having said that, Plain Reality is the first exhibition when I’ve worked on small works.

Untitled. Oil on canvas. Nando’s South Africa.

Have Nando’s Art progammes made a difference to your life as an artist?

I personally would not be doing what I’m doing if it wasn’t for Nando’s. I’m a married guy and, together with my wife, I have to put food on the table and a roof over my head. I have responsibilities. I can’t act as if I’m just doing all of this for the love of the art. I don’t personally believe there is a practising artist alive who maintains that way of thinking, yet society almost seems to expect us to have the type of thinking where we sacrifice it all and put it all on the line for art. I think everyone is lying to themselves. We have to live. Without Nando’s I don’t know if I would be doing what I’m doing. I know what its like not to have money come in and then paint. It doesn’t work. The first scary month drags by, then the second terrifying month….no works of art come from that place. Maybe works for a very few people, but the majority of artists need to make a living and I think  that even amongst artists we’re not honest about that. All the ‘successful’ artists I know did other things before they could survive solely from the art they made – they were doing something to support themselves. I love Nando’s. I’m not doing this on my own. The support is there, and I’m proud to acknowledge it.

Untitled. Oil on canvas. Nando’s South Africa.

Plain Reality by Dion Cupido
 solo exhibition at the Worldart Gallery, 54 Church Street, Cape Town, opens on First Thursday’s on 2 March 2017.

Look out for his next exhibition at FNB Joburg Art Fair at the Sandton Convention Centre from 8 to 10 September 2017.

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