this article uses as its source an informal interview held between Benon Lutaaya, Mandy Conidaris and Kevin Sneider at the artist’s studio at The Bag Factory, Newtown, Johannesburg, on 29 May 2013.
Exploration through process: two years of creative development in the work of of Benon Lutaaya
by mandy conidaris
When Benon Lutaaya finished his university education, he immediately took the decision to become a full-time artist.
This story, in part, describes the pull and push that so many young, unknown artists face when trying to find economical ways to make their artwork. But creativity usually flourishes best when challenged by limitations of some sort - money, space, time, geography, sometimes a disability – and the artist’s limitations often prompt individual solutions that may pave the way for the artist’s unique future technical and conceptual evolution.
As a newly graduated student, Benon could not afford to buy paint, and so he turned to collage. Using the brightly coloured pages of old magazines, he began to make images of the street scenes around him, especially the people. According to Benon, “that was when the paper started. I used the pieces of the magazine to do on the paper what I would have done with paint.” For a year he made small-scale works and put together a portfolio.
He was invited to Johannesburg to participate in an artist’s residency, which shifted his career onwards significantly. On Benon’s arrival, he was given the use of a studio space in The Bag Factory, Newtown, and a budget for art materials.
Now he could buy paint, and he began an exciting period of technical exploration. During the residency program, he experimented with abstract painting, trying to break away from the controlled application of his early paper collages, investigating colour and movement with the fluidity of the medium of paint. In the process, he used many sheets of rough paper such as newsprint and newspaper to mix paint and as test sheets to try out different colours.
Once the residency was over – and again, he no longer had a budget for materials – Benon needed to find other ways to continue his creative work. He realised that he had a large supply of paper covered with mixed paints. He started to tear up these sheets, and went back to his old medium of collage. However now, due to the rough nature of the paper fragments, his new works no longer had the careful appearance of his early collages.
Once he had made three of these works, he managed to negotiate with the administration of The Bag Factory that he stay on in his studio. His work started to attract attention, and he sold a few pieces, which enabled him to buy more paint.
The push and pull.
Benon’s focus had become to create work and challenge himself technically. But a hard decision had to be made at that time. Despite interest in his work, he resisted offers to represent him professionally, as he wanted the freedom to make what he wanted to do, to experiment without external pressure. Then he was making collages from his sheets of rough paper and overpainting them.
Again, the money ran out, and he applied to participate in a ‘Call for Artists’ to respond to the theme of The City of Johannesburg. He said “I travelled so much in the city, and met so many refugees. When I started to research this, I found refugee asylum seekers, and wrote a proposal for a project to look at who are the most vulnerable people and how to overcome that – the proposal was accepted”.
This proved to be another turning point, and he could buy paint again. He painted many works and these sold well. Benon maintained that up until then, the subject matter hadn’t mattered as much as pushing the technique. But after this project he began to paint predominantly portraits, as he felt this subject spoke about himself, his relationships with other people, and challenged his boundaries.
Today Benon makes numerous portraits, sketching directly onto the paper or canvas, often using the same face but shifting and turning it subtly into different angles, extending the neck, opening or closing the eyes. He doesn’t use a model, but his understanding of facial structure is such that the images do not become stylised. With different treatments of his collage/paint technique, the face may become male or female. When painting, he works wet-into-wet, finishing the canvas in one sitting, applying the paint with pieces of cardboard or phone cards – never brushes. Of his technique, he says “I feel I paint more than I collage – yet I am almost collaging with paint.”
In talking of his work, Benon always emphasises the significance of the working process: “once the sketch is on the paper, the experience of collaging or painting becomes the most important thing, I decide which to use and then just attack the canvas!”