Inspired by the city centre

Artist Brian Rolfe loves the sense of community in the city centre.

Brian Rolfe has always had an attraction to the city centre, and was excited when he moved to Cape Town from Johannesburg two years ago.

Talking about the differences between the cities, he says: “Johannesburg feels like the hub of South Africa, but Cape Town is the heart – it’s a tourist city. The city has always intrigued me.

“When I come here to work, I walk as much as possible.”

The city was also inspiration for Brian’s artwork in Longmarket Street – two striking images of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

Brian has been an artist since he was a little boy and, he says, was always drawn to people’s faces and eyes.

He became hooked on the power of images when he worked as a forensic artist for the South African Police Service.

“In terms of forensic art and drawing identi-kits, the image can help with evidence, so it got me thinking, after giving evidence in courts, how an image can change things and how it can tell a story and evoke emotion. That really got to me.”

He then started doing political commentary, and did a piece called The Soul of the Nation –two faces with one mouth taped closed, with President Jacob Zuma dancing and laughing in the background.

“I realised in this time that music and art are who we are, and I felt like art could change a nation.” He then started doing scenic art on film sets part-time to supplement his income, and painting in his free time.

“I was approached by the building owners to do a mural on the empty wall in Longmarket Street. They wanted to celebrate leadership and also our future leaders and capture people. They wanted to celebrate leadership starting with Mandela.”

Brian says he wanted to do strong images with a focus on the eyes so people could not help but look at it – but it was a challenging experience.

“Painting is almost difficult for me because I let my experiences drive the process. It’s something like automatic painting, but there is an honesty about it, like the life comes through.

“So I did the outlines of Madiba and Tutu and then stood in the street and allowed it to give me the energy. Sometimes it was emotion, sometimes I was annoyed at comments in the street, and some days most people said ‘good job, keep up the good work’ and ‘we need more of this’, which made me feel positive.”

He said painting the mural then became somewhat like a performance, with groups of people coming to watch.

“You go into a zone of painting, then you interact a little. It really sets the mood. In the studio you are always alone, but on the street it’s energetic, and I tried to capture that through the bold colours on the mural, especially when I was doing the piece on Desmond Tutu.”

He said he worked on the mural for four days, often having to walk away and come come back to look at it again.

“The mural is not complete. We want to add another face, maybe of a student and then another leader, maybe Steve Biko or Chris Hani.”

And Brian feels the CBD could do with more street art.

“Street art is not confined to walls. It should be used on street lights, pavements and bus stops as well… within reason of course.

“Also, there is space for a lot more sculptures. More can be done here.”

Despite this, Brian loves the city – at all times of the day – but is concerned about how unsafe Long Street has become after dark.

He says he also uses public transport to travel to and from his Hout Bay home to the city centre “to feel connected”.

“There’s just something about the hustle and bustle of people rushing to getting home, or wanting to get into the suburbs.”

But his favourite part is the sense of community that the CBD offers.

“It’s amazing how you can literally sit next to anyone and ask ‘whats up?’, then spark a conversation.”