Local artist Beezy Bailey has returned from his critically acclaimed retrospective in China, and says that South Africa holds the key to bridging the cultural divide between East and West.
The retrospective, launched in celebration of his reaching half a century, was held at a privately owned museum in Wuhan, China, on the banks of the Yangtze River.
The launch was attended by 300 people who also witnessed Bailey’s comical performance in an enormous fat suit where he proved he is a “well-rounded” artist in every sense of the word.
Afterwards, there was a seminar attended by top art critics and academics in China, some of whom had been flown to South Africa beforehand to get a sense of the world that Bailey inhabits.
Bailey held his retrospective in China after being turned down by the SA National Gallery.
But the story of Bailey’s connection with China actually started in the Big Apple. Many years ago, while collaborating with David Bowie in New York, he bought a wad of Chinese ceremonial banknotes which are normally burnt at a funeral.
He began painting images over the banknotes around the austere face of the man printed on the note.
After the images were complete, he wanted to create a story around them for his son.
“This is different to normal,” he says, “as one normally illustrates a story, not the other way around.”
The character was named Lee Ping Zing and he has become something of a legend in Bailey’s colourful collection of work.
American author Tom Robbins later said of the work, “Beezy Bailey’s book of Lee Ping Zing is one of those strange little masterpieces that come in under the radar like a renegade bat, unobserved by the general population yet by sheer force of its imaginative beauty, making a mysterious impact on the consciousness of the world.”
Those at the retrospective also fell in love with Lee Ping Zing. “They compared him to a Chinese Mickey Mouse.
“This stimulated debate around my use of a feudal lord as an icon in my work, and if this was a type of anti-communism sentiment,” Bailey said.
Bailey spent his first few days working on the book with locals and, he says, “I got a taste of how the Chinese work. It is like double the amount we do here in Cape Town!”
He sees his work and art in general as bridging cultures between China and South Africa.
In a series he is currently working on, Chinese banknotes form the under-layer of a New York cityscape.
“New York is very symbolic of the West,” he says, “and the notes are from the East, but when you look at the landscape that forms the backdrop, it is South African.
“I believe our country has the potential to bridge the gap between East and West.
“In fact, SA is the most visited country by Chinese tourists.”
His patron, Dabing Chen, immigrated to South Africa in 1992. Last year, he bought over 100 of Bailey’s pieces.
Says Chen: “The five top art critics from all over China were present at the exhibition. They raved about it, especially the Lee Ping Zing series, and have recommended that it forms a special show that travels around the country.”
One critic burst out crying when she saw Bailey’s work, and his take on this is that so much of the modern city landscape is so ugly that, when people experience beauty, they are profoundly moved.
“Some of the cities there look like war cemeteries,” he says, “but instead of all those tombstones there are skyscrapers. It is Orwellian. In Cape Town we are surrounded by beauty and we take it for granted.
“It was a new experience for many who attended, and for me it was deeply humbling to see their reactions.”