Trauma Re-birthing Light: In Conversation with Byron Masixole Eksteen
Steven Johnson, author of the book, Everything Bad Is Good For You, remarks that gaming is “…about finding order and meaning in the world, and making decisions that help create that order.” Of course Johnson was speaking specifically about the worlds contained within video games, but this idea applies equally to the worlds created by artists, and is perhaps a sentiment that is magnified when those worlds are created by visual artists, and even more so when they are created by disabled visual artists. I recently caught up with a Cape Town-based artist, Byron Masixole Eksteen, to speak about the similarities and differences relating to us both being visual artists who have experienced head injuries and spent time in a coma. We re-examined Johnson’s words in the context of disability. How post brain trauma, we are finding order and meaning in the world, and making decisions that help create that order.
Nolan Stevens: As I mentioned before, I would like this interview to be more of a conversation between two creatives who have brain injuries and lived through comas. I have been speaking to my family because I can’t remember anything from my coma experience, or that period of my life. In contrast, one of the things I have noticed during our chats is how vivid your memory is. You say things like, Oh, I remember I did this the night of my accident,or The night before my accident such and such happened. I bump into people who know me by name and I can’t remember where I know them from. That is a difference that stands out throughout our conversations.
Byron Masixole Eksteen: I get flashes of memory but I’m not entirely sure what happened around the time of my accident. Like I remember the day before it happened and I remember going out that evening. I don’t fully remember the actual accident itself and it haunted me for a long time, but I let it go recently.
NS: Tell me about your memories from before your accident as opposed to those of the actual incident itself. Are you able to recall things the way they actually were? The reason why I’m asking that is because I feel like a lot of my memories are constructed from what I’ve heard people say, rather than what I truly remember.
BME: Yeah, like a reconstructed memory. It’s interesting because it felt like I came into a new body; like, I would ask my mum to drive me to places where I used to hang out, just so I could recollect memories. My memory hasn’t failed me since the accident and I still have a pretty good memory of what happened before. It’s absolutely remarkable I was thinking about this last night.
NS: I am totally impressed by that because my memory is beyond bad, It’s embarrassing. There are things that I remember that are crystal clear to the point were I can remember what a person was wearing, and then there are instances were people come up to me, like this weekend when I went out, and people come up to me, Hey, Nolan, how you doing? and I am so used to not remembering people that I fall into an automatic response of Hey! How you been? If anyone asks who that was, I usually say, I don’t bloody know. That happens to me a lot.
BME: Yeah, my memory is actually very sharp; like I can remember numbers, dates, its pretty good.
NS: You once told me about your work being about an overwhelming sense of everything that happens in your head. When did that start, or when did you first notice this?
BME: The information overload happened almost immediately after I came out of the coma.
NS: I can see that manifesting in your art. If I compare the oil painting you showed me that was done on the day you got hurt and the works you created after your accident, there is a clear intensity of line work and imagery in the latter.
BME: I bunked school that day before the accident because my mum wanted a painting for her house and I had never made an oil on canvas painting before. She took me to a few galleries and furniture stores and told me that she wanted something in that abstract style. So, that was why I painted that oil you are referring to. I painted it so my mum could decorate her house. She actually also painted parts, so it’s sort of like a collaboration between us.
NS: Okay but when I look at the work you’ve done after your accident, my eye jumps all over the place. I feel a mania because it doesn’t have a particular focal point. I feel anxiety in the movement. I am not sure if that reflects a change both creatively and psychologically because of your accident.
BME: I would say yes it does. Even my drawing has hyped up by like a thousand. It has affected everything. I mean like I started thinking about time, metaphysics, my existence on this planet. Knowing that I died and knowing that I couldn’t remember things when I came out of my coma and then my memory started coming back to me, it freaked me out that there was time that was missing, so I began obsessing about time. When I first got out of hospital, my right hand was still not working so I started writing with my left hand and I was writing theories on how to freeze time.
NS: Even though I have lived most of my life as a disabled person, for a long time I felt like it was only yesterday that I got out of my coma. I strongly identified with and felt that I had lost the person I used to be. I mean, I got hurt when I was nine. This year, I am 37 so I have been a disabled person much longer than an able-body person. More than half my life. Strangely, I continued to identify as that young Nolan until relatively recently when that realisation hit me.
BME: Ja, it’s just your imagination and the false expectations of yourself. So, in a way you were putting yourself down.
NS: Yeah, exactly. You told me that you worry that I may see this as a competition between you and me. But I am totally learning from your experience and I want to write about it because I want other people who have experienced coma and brain injury to know that there are no hard and fast rules as to how you will experience life afterwards. That’s why I want to write this as a conversation rather than doing an interview because I want to show the multiple ways we go about living our lives, that there a so many different experiences and options for those living life after a coma or life after a brain injury.
BME: That’s an interesting point. I’d just like to say that it hasn’t been all rainbows and puppies, I’ve had some hectic moments. After the brain injury, I experienced a lot of trauma and anxiety and depression. When the waves of mania come on with Bipolar it literally felt like hell on Earth. It felt like someone was drilling into my mind, the sound was similar to the buzzing of the London tube. Everything has worked itself out now in terms of my personal life. I am so grateful to the Association of the Visual Arts (AVA) for adopting me into their program. They took the initiative and decided that I could do an installation in their media room. It’s the first of its kind, not like other commercial galleries. It’s the first time they’ve done something like this. I have to thank Miriam, the manager of the gallery. They are very understanding and they give their artists carte blanche. I’m selling more work and it’s thanks to them.
NS: When I looked at your installation at AVA, it was one thing to be confronted by your paintings done in that style, but it’s also amazing to walk into the space where the aesthetic envelops and surrounds you. It gives the viewer a sense of what it must be like to be you or an understanding of how you as an artist see the world. I think a lot of people are interested in the way an artist sees the world, whether you have experienced brain injury and coma or not. But with your work the different way of viewing the world is heightened or amplified. I really loved this about your installation.
BME: A few points on that; it was a good idea to make the video of that installation at AVA because people are too afraid to go into the real space. I think it’s easier for them to experience it at a distance because they are used to engaging with the world through their screens. They have become so disassociated from engaging with different realities that they don’t have the courage to go in and meditate with the space. I made that video so I could invite people to look into that room from their own comfort zone. It’s a nice introduction to the space. A few people have come to me and said they went into the space and looked at the art for a long period of time. They meditated in that space. The second thing is that the work is an amalgamation of shapes. I stylised those shapes so they would be more like my hand signature. That is a key aspect of the installation. It is an amalgamation of irregular patterns that both fit together and fight for a space to live and exist within the final composition; the final shape. Through my art, I am stating that I see the world as fragmented but it’s still makes sense to me. That’s why I find psychosis interesting because somewhere in the chaos there is sense. How can you argue against someone’s reality when it makes sense to them? People tell me about their experiences of psychosis and how it becomes the shape of their reality and how they see the world. It becomes a completely fragmented reality versus that of another person’s reality; the more ‘logical’ reality. The question remains whether that reality is logical or illogical. It depends on the person who believes it. I worked with those ideas and how illogical these shapes are and how these colours all juxtapose against each other. It’s all very carefully constructed when it comes to the balance of the colours, the balance of the shapes and the balance of the line work to create an opposition or struggle against each other but still manage a greater harmony, a rationality. A viewer might look at it and see shapes but as humans we want to identify objects. We want to find familiarity, patterns. This intrigues me. Like how back in the day people would fold paper and press ink onto a page then find shapes and objects in the image. What I’m trying to prove is that there is more out there. If you look at what is right in front of you a bit differently, then you will see more.
NS: I am fascinated by the amount of colour that you use. I don’t use much colour in my work. My ink and my charcoal drawing which is the medium I work predominately in, is usually black and white. When I do use colour it seems to magnify. Sometimes, I’m not sure of the colour I’m seeing. I’ve always had a weird relationship with colour. When I do choose to use colour, it’s very bright. Having said that I do wear a lot of colour.
I’d like to know more about your approach to using colour. Take for example your piece, Trauma Re-birthing Light. To me it is a black and white but when we spoke about it you mentioned the hints of colour in there. I am unable to see that colour. I find this really interesting because it relates to what we were saying about memory. Because you have such a complete understanding of colour, you are able to manipulate it. I don’t have as good an understanding of colour and I almost over-compensate.
BME: Okay, firstly you know that understanding of colour isn’t binary, so it’s cool the way your brain perceives it. Secondly, I’d encourage you to stop thinking like that and start saying the opposite to yourself because I think maybe it could be intimidating you.
NS: I should also mention that following my accident my left side was affected. I can’t see through my left eye which means I’ve got depth perception challenges. Walking around the city is difficult for me because I can’t tell how far away cars are. If you’ve ever watched the way a pigeon move, it bobs its head from side to side because both eyes are like having one eye. It doesn’t have depth perception. So, by moving its head like that its better able to see three-dimensionally. I have a similar problem because I only see through one eye and that affects how I perceive the world around me. I’m not sure if that applies to the way I see colour though.
BME: Thank you for sharing that. I guess the issue then becomes who you are comparing yourself to. I mean if you want to bring colour into it, you have mastered your understanding of colour according to your ability. It may not be the same as other people’s use or understanding of colour but it’s your reality.
NS: There’s something I’ve also noticed from doing these articles and interviews with people with various impairments, that like me they often over compensate. I often feel that because I am disabled, I need to work harder than a non-disabled person. I really push myself. A lot of disabled people I’ve interviewed, seem to do that too.
BME: I thoroughly relate to that because we have to work harder, no one has any real pity for disadvantaged people out there who can’t or don’t want to work. Going back to colour, my understanding of colour is that it speaks to you with regards to whatever you see around you. In my work colour is very calculated and balanced. For example, there are a lot of red shapes. If you take a ruler and draw a line connecting all the red shapes in the work, you’ll find that they make up a triangle. Not only with a ruler but in respect to the relationship of space and where the eye can see it. Another very important factor in my work is that I mix all my colours from red, yellow and blue. I never buy a turquoise-ocean-pastel-blue, or a sand-desert-brown. I mix it all by eye. I do this because I am mostly guided by impulse but also because I think this whole thing of buying colours is a capitalist scheme.
NS: There are primary colours in all the mediums you work, oils, acrylics and ink?
BME: Yes, all mixed by eye except for the inks because inks are markers. You can’t really mix the markers. I do also sometimes mix colours with spray paint but spray paint is a different story. My installation is all done with colours I mixed from primary colours. Ja, its just the art of seeing. To see better and to understand the relationship between how colour forms and the relationships that come out of that. It’s mostly to meet my desire to mix the exact colours I want, but it also derived from wanting to save money, and then more importantly the skill. Skill is very important to me. When I was younger I was inspired by the greats like Michelangelo and especially the sculptors. I was thinking how the hell did they do that with just a block and chisel; no chainsaws or drills. Just a block and chisel and eye reference to someone who is standing and posing in front of them. What’s really important for me when making the work is skill. With graffiti back in the day, before all this new paint came out that makes it super easy to make the work, the older paint wasn’t designed for graffiti. It was really difficult to get thin lines, shades, colours. That level of skill needed always really inspired me. I would look at pieces when I was a kid and think how the hell did they do this. I want the same impact when someone looks at my work and they don’t know where to start.
NS: I’d like to move onto your poetry or slam poetry/rap. The poem in the AVA video, all the rhyming and verses that are in my limited understanding are push back against the expectations of society. I find that sentiment also in the titles you give your works, like “Another Brother Lost To The Timetable”. I love that title because there are so many people I went to university with who have become call centre agents and sales people, obviously because they need to put food on the table. It is very difficult to make money from a career as an artist.
BME: That’s one way of interpreting it. The piece talks about… and I just want to make it clear before I go on that it is not an anti-Feminist work. I completely respect the Feminist Movement and all the work done there, and I respect women. The piece talks about the unsung hero, when a man doesn’t have any work, when you don’t have anything. Society completely boycotts you. There’s so much pressure on men that isn’t spoken about. Which shows in the increasing numbers of male suicide. I believe that a lot of it has to do with been valued through productivity because as men, like I said, we have to be productive. So that’s what it talks about. That work particularly was a breakthrough in style for me because I was discovering a whole new technique of brush work, colour mixing, compassion and patterning. It took me eight months but now I can do that in a month.
NS: Would you say that that’s the kind of theme that most of your work deals with?
BME: No, that was a one off. I don’t really stick to certain themes. My works have different meaning behind them. The most recent one was Trauma Re-birthing Light because I’m just coming out of trauma. Enlightened Self was inspired by a painting of St. Augustine looking into a heart. It talks about the grand epiphany, the awakening. Even if it’s just an epiphany of where your car keys are.
NS: How much of your identity as someone who has gone through trauma and been in a coma is a part of your artistic identity? For instance if you are selling works is this something that your buyers would know?
BME: Shhhhh, it’s all secret. I’m conscious of not talking about it because I don’t want to. I mean, it’s not like I don’t talk about it. I spoke about it on national television but I’m very aware that my story may presented or received in the wrong way, that people will interpret me as a loose cannon. Especially now that I’m becoming more involved in the art world and it looks like my career is growing in a promisingly. I don’t want to be depicted in a way where people say, Be careful of Byron, he is a mad man. People still have a very closed ideas on mental health, even though they or someone close to them might have mental health issues. Unfortunately in our society, people classify mental health negatively and marginalise those experiencing mental distress. I don’t want to come across as someone who is an unproductive member of society, a loose cannon who just makes art works. Secondly, I don’t want to use mental health or the experience of brain trauma to boost my career. I think that would be blasphemy. It hasn’t been a very nice life. It’s been a very difficult life living in my head. An artist friend of mine once tried to encourage me to exploit my condition; wear a scary mask and put on a show for people. It made me feel very uncomfortable because its not about that. Like for you though; your body is physically impaired and that’s something that you can’t hide, but …
NS: As you were speaking about your mate who was encouraging you to exploit your experience with the mask and stuff, it reminded me that I’ve had people close to me telling me that I should do the same kind of thing. But most of the editors I submit work to don’t even know I am disabled. I have never met them.
BME: So, you’re with me? We kind of have to be like Superman…
NS: Yeah, why would you needlessly want someone to know that you are disabled if it is not relevant.
BME: Ja, I had brain injury and as a result of the brain damage, the very particular, miraculous, arbitrary insane reality of that damage, I became hyper intelligent. But, it has it’s downside, its like the black and the white, it’s not that I am hyper intelligent and now I live on clouds. It can be very hectic at times. So, talk to me about metaphysics, talk to me the stock market and the value of art. That’s where I’m at. I don’t want to come across as a Mister Scary. That’s why I feel comfortable talking to you about this because you’re open about your challenges and you understand where I’m coming from, otherwise there’s not a chance in hell that I would speak to anyone, or a journalist who is looking for the next hot article. Not a chance in hell would I be discussing this with them.
NS: Yo, thanks man. You know what I’m also thinking about right now? You’ve seen the most recent Joker movie that got the Oscar right?
BME: Ah no, I haven’t but I’ve seen a lot about it online and think I get the picture of what it’s all about. Carry on though.
NS: The reason I’m asking is because I’ve got a friend, a really good mate who has schizophrenia. He went to watch the film because I’d seen it and was like, Dude you really gotta watch this movie. But he really didn’t like it. He’s sick and tired of people with mental illness being treated like they’re psychopaths. I get that but argued that I think this movie looked at how society isn’t backing up people with mental health issues. The Joker’s mental health deteriorates because the funding for therapy is cut and he doesn’t have money for his medication and it is the first time we get the Joker’s backstory. It’s an alternative narrative that the Joker is not just some crazy guy going around killing people and the Waynes are the ones who are messing up poor people. I think the arts, whether it be visual art, music, film or theatre are better spaces to speak about and from traumatic experiences. Look at jazz musician and artist, Miles Davis, and Jean Michelle Basquiat or Van Gogh, they all had some kind of challenge going on and maybe that’s what made them great.
BME: So, lets track back to what I was saying about how shape and colour exist. How the shapes and colour I make exist as a rationale that makes sense to me. It’s getting a bit deep now because this is quite something for me to say but I feel I’m put on this earth as a creator to guide society onto a different path. I do that through my art and my music. Artists create objects that allow others to see the way they see the world and that is a huge benefit to society. Ukuthwasa, entry into the spiritual realm and ancestry is widely accepted and back in the day the word genius was accepted as meaning the spirit entering you. A lot of my work talks about that, returning to the idea that we are not mad but just not of this era. I’m very careful not to speak about this because I’m going to sound egotistical but you coming from the Sotho tradition will understand where I’m coming from. I’m also very careful not to focus on these kinds of topics because it can trigger my bipolar incidents.
NS: I think that’s so interesting. We need to take note of the ancient wisdom in this world that most people have forgotten or just don’t understand.
BME: On that note, I worked as a graphic designer for a BBC film called The Good Omen, and in that film they explore Celtic beliefs and beliefs from England and Wales before Christianity began. I put some secret symbols in one scene from central Africa. People who go on about spirituality are often cast as mad. That’s why I keep these kinds of thoughts to myself. It attracts certain people but I do not necessarily want to market myself as a spiritual artist because there’s billions of them.
NS: We haven’t managed to speak much about your writing, music and poetry, but maybe that is for another time.
BME: If I say I’m manic or crazy, that I see the world differently, people are most likely to distance themselves from me. But if I put all those thoughts and beliefs into a rhyme scheme and add a beat pattern they seem to get it. It’s the power of music and art. The structure, the rhyme, the beat entertains, keeps people from getting bored. If it wasn’t for my art and my music, I think I would be a complete outcast from society. It is only by communicating through my art that people understand what I have to say.
NS: In closing, what is it you want people to walk away with after seeing your work?
BME: Goosebumps! I want them to walk away after they have let down their guard. I want them to meditate, lose themselves in the space and leave feeling like a fish out of water.
In much the same way that author Steven Johnson feels that gaming is a means to finding order and meaning in the world, Byron Eksteen’s world-building demonstrates that it is possible to create different realities and logic, and communicate these to others through art regardless of physical or mental impairment or perhaps even aided by such impairments.
BYRON MASIXOLE EKSTEEN is a South African, interdisciplinary artist that uses a variety for mediums focusing on a variety of subject matter.
NOLAN STEVENS was born in exile in Swaziland but has lived the better part of his life in inner-city Johannesburg. He attributes his love of writing to his mother, Stella May Ntsihlele who wrote children’s books, short stories and plays. Nolan works with ideas of Blackness in an Afro-urban context, exploring various aspects of black identity in his art making, arts writing and curatorial projects. He was chosen as UK Unlimited’s 2018 international placement. The experience has shifted his perspective of how he views disability and how he sees himself as a disabled creative contributing to the understanding of disability arts. Nolan feels that justice for disabled people in South Africa is a struggle that must be placed in the forefront both in terms of infrastructure as well as public education.
Interview conducted by Nolan Stevens
Published 3rd July 2020