While graffiti is usually mentioned in the same breath as nuisance, Nadia Fisher has turned her graffiti art into a rewarding career, writes Gasant Abarder.
She’s shy and unassuming. Not exactly what I imagined for one of South Africa’s foremost graffiti artists. But don’t be fooled - Nadia Fisher has succeeded in turning her graffiti art into a powerhouse career.
Graffiti or street art is usually mentioned in the same breath as “nuisance”. The City of Cape Town even has strict by-laws policing it. But Nadia argues this approach for a creative city like Cape Town - which a few seasons ago carried the title of World Design Capital, no less - is an opportunity missed.
“Recently, around the world, graffiti has become a more accepted art form but not graffiti in the vandalism senseâ€¦ more street art and people painting big murals,” says Nadia, who goes by the tag Nardstar.
Nadia has straddled her background in hip hop culture and used graffiti art as her medium. She is commissioned by corporates to do murals. Her most prominent commercial work to date is the more than 100 square metre mural she painted inside the Two Oceans Aquarium.
Nadia recently returned from a residency in Nantes, France, where she was commissioned, along with other African artists, to do an artwork in an abandoned building. The piece later went on exhibition.
“There are lots of festivals and a lot of people who started doing graffiti have moved on to street art and now exhibit in galleries. They’re recognised as real artists and not just seen as the stereotype, which is the vandal.
“The scare of the by-law has calmed down a bit. When it was first implemented and leading up to when it was first put into place, a lot of artists were feeling they were being controlled and they didn’t have the freedom to paint the way they wanted.
“A lot of people I know and who I used to paint with stopped painting. I think now it’s a lot calmer so it’s starting to pick up again. But I think it killed the whole scene for a year or two, which makes no sense because we’re seen as a creative city.”
Nadia, 30, is the daughter of former Cape Times editor Ryland Fisher. It’s relevant because I was a junior reporter under Ryland’s tenure. He was a serious operator who didn’t suffer fools.
But mostly, with projects like his “One City, Many Cultures” initiative, he was ahead of his time as an editor and influencer. With Nadia, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in this regard. But there is a stark difference to Ryland in her approach to her work. Ryland and his wife Ibtisaan are activists. But their history in the Struggle hasn’t pushed Nadia’s work in that direction.
Nadia prefers to use her art to uplift environments. Instead of pieces depicting a social narrative, she uses bright, bold colours and has a penchant for animals in her work.
“My mother is very different to my father. They’re complete opposites. She’s very happy and friendly all the time. He’s always very serious and focused on work. There is a balance.
“My parents have been speaking to me about the Struggle. They fought in the Struggle, but maybe their parents weren’t as involved with them. Those are lessons I learnt from them to fight for what I want and my expression.
“I use my art to uplift environments and to add a positive energy. I never got into the heavy political thing. I think it’s because my parents, their friends and everything around them were always about politics.
“I had this conversation with one of the artists at the residency because he paints such heavy political things. He asked me about politics in my country and he wasn’t impressed that I didn’t know as much as he did about my own country.
“I told him my parents fought in the Struggle and whether they liked it or not, they helped to create this freedom for their children and that freedom also meant that maybe we wouldn’t be as into politics and be more interested in careers that they’re not comfortable or familiar with. That’s a by-product of what they created.
“I also don’t want to feel like I’m bullied into expressing a story that isn’t my own. Some people ask why don’t I have more of a coloured narrative or paint about gangsterism. I’ve been living in the suburbs most of my life. That isn’t my story, even though my family lives on the Cape Flats.”
Nadia graduated from CPUT as a graphic designer. But hanging out with B-Boys and MCs in her teenage years sparked her love for the visual form of hip hop expression.
“You can’t study graffiti because it’s directly linked to hip hop culture. It’s a street culture element and you have to learn it on the street. When I was a teenager I was very into hip hop and I still am. I was always around people who were B-Boys or making beats. Nobody was really into painting and I was into drawing, so I started getting into graffiti.
“I studied graphic design but it’s not really related. They teach you so many different skills that you can branch out into. When I was there I knew I wasn’t going to be a graphic designer. I did other things like live drawing and print making which got me interested in art and design.”
Nadia is also one of a handful of female graffiti artists in a male-dominated world. It’s not an impediment for her.
“For the longest time I never wanted to be the stereotype of what a girl or a woman should be. I just wanted to be myself. Even when I was a little girl, I didn’t want Barbies, I wanted Ninja Turtle toys. I was never a girly-girl and I didn’t want to have to change that.
“That’s something that just carried me through and kept pushing me. I didn’t want to be discouraged by this being a male-dominated scene because I love to paint and that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want that to stop me.
“Graffiti is really competitive. There are a lot of egos and people will get into fights about who painted where. I try to stay out of it. Sometimes I pick up some bad vibes, but I choose not to focus on that. All the focus is on my work and trying to elevate myself.
“I can’t be bothered about people saying negative things. They can trip out on me being a girl as much as they want to. It’s not going to stop me.”
If you’re a parent reading this, or a student considering street art for a living, you may be thinking how a career in graffiti art can be sustainable.
But Nadia is living proof you can do what you love and pay the bills. She has travelled the world exhibiting her work. During these travels she encountered the way cities embrace graffiti art. She’s attended festivals all over the world and taken residencies in a few places to hone her craft.
But back home, because of the attitudes towards graffiti, opportunities are limited for artists like her.
“There are people who appreciate graffiti, but then there’s the city that is not on the same side. I would like more support from the city for street art.
“In other cities I’ve travelled to there is funding in place for street artists and the cities create street festivals to support artists. I don’t think that really happens here. There is one festival for street artists in Joburg and that’s it.
“I just got back from Nantes, France, where I was doing an art residency and a commissioned piece. The art residency was called Grafikama, organised by a street artist based in France. It was the third part of his series of exhibitions.
“He goes to a continent, finds artists and brings them to exhibit in his city. He’d been to Asia and South America and this year it was the turn of African artists, and I was one of them.
“There were artists from Senegal, Ethiopia, Morocco, along with artists from France. We were all in this abandoned building that is going to be demolished in two months so we all had our own space to create our work.
“Not all of them were street artists - some did sculptures and installations. We were thrown into this building together for two weeks to create artworks and then it was exhibited.”
Nadia says taking on a project is hard work and you need to be committed to see it to its completion. The aquarium mural required working at odd hours of the day.
“I did a wall at the aquarium recently - a really big one! It was more than 100 square metres. I tried to work it out to about 10 cans per two metres square. It depends on how much detail I’m putting into it.
“It took me a month because I couldn’t work full days. It was the end of the year and they hire out the aquarium for functions and events. I had to work in the mornings, before they opened at 9am.
“It meant getting up at 3am and working till 8.30am, cleaning up and leaving. They wanted it done by a certain deadline, but because of the hours available for me to work, it took a lot longer.
“It’s the two walls along on the ramp that goes from the touch pool to the penguins exhibit. There’s a lot of my work in Woodstock and some in Salt River. Sometimes I paint in Mitchells Plain as well. I’m proud of all my work.”
And her recipe for success?
“The most important thing is to develop your own style so when people see your work they know it’s you. You have to put yourself out there as much as possible. You also have to manage yourself because you have to run yourself as a business, promote yourself and be professional in the spaces where you work.”