The Artistry of Silence : An interview with Raymond Fuyana and Rene Mathibe by Nolan Stevens

Raymond Fuyana and Rene Mathibe are standing facing the camera in a studio/gallery with white walls. There are prints on the wall to the left of the photograph in the background.

Wander into one of South Africa’s best-known art institutions: Artist Proof Studios (APS) in Johannesburg, and what you’re immediately met with is the cacophony of scents, sights and sounds that can only be associated with the world of a print-making studio. This world, however, I am familiar with but the world I was more eager to gain entry into on this particular visit was that of Raymond Fuyana, a d/Deaf student who is in his third year at APS, and Rene Mathibe, an artist and facilitator, who has taken it upon herself to learn sign language and help Raymond and those around him at the studio. It is this world of silence and artistry that called me to APS to speak to the duo. I was keen to investigate and learn more. This is what I discovered:

NOLAN:  I wanted to start this off by asking you, Raymond, what the challenges have been for you so far.

RAYMOND:  (interpreted/signed by Rene) My biggest challenge has been communicating with people. It’s always been hard to connect with people but I use writing and try to teach people basic sign language.

NOLAN: And Rene, how did you start signing? Did you learn specifically because of Raymond, or had you learnt to sign before you met each other?

RENE: I have a deaf friend who used to teach at his school and she could hear a little. I was interested and asked her to teach me. I had very basic signing vocabulary and then when Raymond came to study in the Saturday program; which is part-time, I knew I needed to go and learn more. I went to his school where they have free classes on Saturdays. It was an interest at first, later I realised that I can use this for a greater good.

NOLAN: Do you have to be with him during every one of his classes?

RENE: Yes, I am the only one who can sign here. Well, there is also one of his class mates, Itumeleng, who can sign a little.

NOLAN: How did Itumeleng learn to sign?

RAYMOND: When I was new, we met in first year. He didn’t know much about sign language but he tried and put in the effort. I taught him basic words like ‘when’, ‘how’ and ‘what’, and as time went by he learnt more words and comes up to me regularly asking how do I sign this and how do I sign that. The others are not that interested, he is the only one trying to make the effort.

NOLAN: Do you mind telling me how you became deaf?

RAYMOND: No, it’s okay, I was born deaf and I got sick when I was little and this prevented me from hearing at all.

NOLAN: Where did your love of art come from?

RAYMOND: I did the skills-based stream at my school, St. Vincent, but when I did the Saturday course here it opened my mind to new creative possibilities. I didn’t know print-making existed before coming to APS.

NOLAN: Is St. Vincent a high school specifically for deaf people?

RAYMOND: It’s for deaf people mostly but does cater to others too.

NOLAN: Is St. Vincent an expensive institution to go to? If someone is deaf do they need to have a lot of money to go there?

RENE: Yes, because they’re excellent and their teachers are great. I think before St. Vincent was just for whites, now it’s more integrated.

NOLAN: Could you tell me a bit about the Saturday program here; what does it entail?

RENE: The program is geared towards helping the students to develop a portfolio of prints, which can be used as an aid for applying to other university art courses or for applications into APS.

NOLAN: What is your theme right now; what are you working with conceptually?

RAYMOND: Let me show you some of my work. These are a few of my latest lino-cut prints. I use the crow as a symbol for my body and mind. I am the crow in these images and here I’m talking about my mind and thought, because I come from an illustrative background at school. I’m using all those elements here too. I’m creating spaces that are in my dreams, so they’re real but they’re also not real. Yes, my Identity portrait was something I did when in first year. I was still new to things back then but now I find myself going back to that work a lot. Talking about how I’m always thinking, dreaming and looking at things differently. How I see the world and interact with my emotions. I was trying to create this world that I existed in. Now, there’s a lot more life that I’ve experienced.

NOLAN: Rene, when Raymond first applied to study here, was there any form of push back, or uncertainty from the teachers and staff who may not have been sure how to deal with a d/Deaf student?

RENE: No, because I took it upon myself to say I’ll teach him and I’ll be there. I mean some teachers are very reluctant to learn, and I’ve noticed that they feel intimidated. So, I work-shopped sessions with them about what I know about Deaf culture.

NOLAN: After APS what’s next for you, are you going to go to another university or move onto a career in art, what are your plans?

RAYMOND: I want to be out there in the world, but I also want to remember what I learnt here.  Is disability art and deaf art culture the same?

NOLAN: That’s something I’m only starting to discover now because when I was at art school and when I was at university, I was always the only disabled person around. I didn’t want to be identified as disabled, so I pushed myself to be equal or even better than my peers. I know very little about disabled culture.

RAYMOND: What are the challenges you face as a disabled artist?

NOLAN: Because my disability was brought about by an accident that caused me to have a brain injury, my left side got partially paralysed. This affected my sight and mobility. In short, pretty much every artistic project is a challenge for me because of the physicality of making art but back to you young man. I’m supposed to be asking the questions here. Let’s shift focus for a moment to you, Rene, and speak about how your interactions with Raymond have affected your own artistic practice.

RENE: When I started learning sign language at St. Vincent they offered classes to anyone. It’s not a structured program or part of the curriculum. It’s open to families who have deaf kids or people with deaf partners, or anyone who has a deaf person in their midst or if you just have an interest. What I realised is that deaf people have their own culture. My teacher at the school kept referring to “the hearing world” and “Deaf culture”, which is very different, and she made me aware of a lot of things that I wasn’t aware of. Like what do you do when a kid is very young, and you want to get their attention? You can’t throw things at them, but you could maybe switch the light on and off. I think it was important for me to understand what it is to be deaf and what people perceive deaf people to be. I mainly paint and draw. My work is about identity and the female figure, female sexuality and being homosexual, and the conflict and struggles I face daily. Being around Raymond has brought a sensitivity to my personal work.

NOLAN: I do think we as South Africans tend to use our art as a tool for social commentary, that commentary however does seem to be devoid of those speaking about the challenges of disability and deaf people. A question for you, Raymond. Are you focusing on deafness in your art?

RAYMOND: I think I am touching on being deaf in my art a little bit but it’s not that obvious. I have dialogue in my works but it’s nonverbal dialogue. I also use the crow because in the way that we can’t understand crows, I can’t speak for myself.

NOLAN: The crow is an interesting metaphor or element because historically it’s used to symbolise death. Are you subverting that in some way or ignoring that metaphor completely?

RAYMOND: We had a project where we made a series of three, six or eight prints. I started using the crow then. The story is that the two crows meet and they’re both deaf. They have a relationship. One gets sick and passes away and there is one crow left all by itself. The dead crow starts to change itself into a king and rises from the dead so he can find a way to meet his friend again.

RENE: It’s like finding new life after death.

NOLAN: Raymond, are you going to continue with this theme or will you be moving onto something else?

RAYMOND: Yes, I’m continuing with the crow but will be using the body more in my work, focusing more on it as a symbol for freedom.

RENE: When Raymond first got here, he was very introverted but now I notice that he is more focused on finding a sense of home in the dream-like spaces he creates, and by doing this he is slowly coming out of his shell.

NOLAN: As you move on with these crows, do you think your works will continue to be more surrealist and dream-like?

RAYMOND: Yes. I think I’ll continue working on that concept. Maybe I’ll have one crow and not two because I’m always working with dialogue. I have a lot of emotions I need to pour out; my thoughts, dreams, what I see, I need to express all that in my art.

NOLAN: Do you know Willem Boshoff?

RAYMOND: No. Who is he?

NOLAN: Boshoff is a very important South African conceptual artist and sculptor. He’s an artist who isn’t disabled or deaf but what he does is make some works that are for blind people. He makes works with braille, for example, that only blind people can interact with fully, and sighted people can’t gain access to.

RAYMOND: So, he makes work for disabled people?

NOLAN: Yeah, they’re usually sculptured pieces and, yes, you can find some in public spaces like the University of Johannesburg (UJ) campus. His works deal with access or availability of communication. Disabled people don’t have access to a lot of things, he changes that by giving blind or disabled people more access than non-disabled people.

RAYMOND: When you went to UJ were there students who were deaf in your group?

NOLAN: No. The only time I encountered a person who was deaf was when I was in high school at the National School of the Arts. There was a boy who did ballet, dance. There was one other girl, I think, who signed for most of his classes, but he could lip read, I think. How has Kim (Berman – the founder of APS) been towards Raymond coming here?

RENE: Here, the philosophy is, we take students from all walks of life. I came here in 2012. There was a deaf student who had studied here before that. Kim told me that it isn’t the first time a deaf student has been here. Only the teachers from back then aren’t here anymore.

The time I spent with Rene and the twenty-two-year-old Zimbabwean-born deaf student who was adopted by South Africans, is but a drop of ink in the multi-layered world of artistry. Their kinship is a mere glimpse into the transformative and unifying power of art for all. In short, this interview was a glimpse into a world of silent artistry. 

Published 20 May 2018

RAYMOND FUYANA was born in 1995 in Zimbabwe. He moved to Johannesburg, South Africa in 2009 where he attended St Vincent School for the Deaf in Rosebank. He then joined the Saturday Portfolio Development at Artist Proof Studio in 2015 and enrolled for the full-time program in 2016. He draws and paints with different mediums. Fuyana participated in a group exhibition ‘Pierneef Interpreted’ the works were featured at the Turbine Art Fair alongside Strauss and Co. J.B Pierneef original works. He is currently completing his 3rd Year at APS, specialising in printmaking.

RENEILWE (RENE) MATHIBE is a painter and writer living and working in Johannesburg. She was born in 1989, in the North West Province of South Africa. She completed her B-Tech Degree in Visual Arts at the University of Johannesburg in 2011 with painting as a major. Mathibe currently works as a First Year Coordinator, teaching Drawing and Visual Literacy at Artist Proof Studio. Her work explores the female body and examines the constraints faced by most black lesbians in South Africa.

 

A colour photograph of Nolan Stevens standing near a wall covered in street art. He is wearing a light-blue peak cap and pointing to the wall.NOLAN STEVENS was born in exile in Swaziland but has lived the better part of his life in inner-city Johannesburg. He is the fourth and youngest member of an artistic family. His mother, Stella May Ntsihlele wrote children’s books, short stories and plays. He attributes his love of writing to her. His eldest brother is a sound engineer and his middle brother is in the film industry.

Nolan is a visual artist who works with ideas of Blackness in an Afro-urban context. He explores various aspects of black identity in his art making, arts writing and curatorial projects. He started curating by partnering with American, Anne Gordon, and organising exhibitions at the Bataki Kollective.  He is inspired by conversations on representation with artists from various art studio spaces within the Johannesburg inner city area. Under the banner of “A Funky Mad Hatter Joint” he curated The Pink Light District; an all-female exhibition which grappled with ideas of how women feel they have been prostituted by traditional African culture, the media and society as a whole. The second show was Deck Society; a collaboration with an international education and skateboarding organisation called SKATEISTAN. This exhibition asked artists to think about issues facing South African youth and to create Afrocentric Pop Art works on skateboard decks provided by SKATEISTAN. Sounds and the City was his last exhibition which fused music and visual art.  

He was chosen as UK Unlimited’s 2018 international placement and is finding that experience is shifting his perspective in a wide variety of ways not only in terms of how he views disability but how he sees himself as a creative person with disability contributing to understanding disability arts as a community.

Nolan feels that barriers faced by people with disability in South Africa are difficult to overcome, both in terms of infrastructure as well as public education. He was the only disabled artist at art school, university and in his immediate artist environment. He did not want to be pitied and tried to fit into the ‘norm.’ He has always had to make do and try to work within the structures that are already in place. He is only now beginning to seek out others in the disability arts community.

Further Information :

DeafTV South Africa Interview with Raymond Fuyana