The fibre of reality

In their powerful photo series Who Am I? Transgressions, Leon Botha and Gordon Clark have embarked on a collaborative and artistic adventure, a journey through different worlds and realities, exploring the questions of destiny and immortality.

The series of portraits depicts the 24-year-old Botha, one of the world’s longest-surviving progeria sufferers. Progeria is a rare disease that causes rapid ageing and related health complications. In Clark’s photographs, Botha is dressed up and placed into theatrical projections of how society may see him. Botha is an artist himself and has worked with Clark, a photographer and top commercials director, to explore the idea of what it means to experience difference.

Beyond the obvious reference to Botha’s condition, Clark says the work “shows a lot more about the state of the planet right now”.
The work challenges us while it celebrates Botha’s triumphant survival. It unmasks our commonality as human beings and also suggests that our mechanism for coping with difficult life experiences sometimes involves acts of transgression.

The Mail & Guardian met with Clark and Botha in Cape Town to conduct a video interview, transcribed and edited here. The video interview is available to view on the M&G‘s­website.

How is the exhibition a “celebration of Leon’s life”?
Clark: It is a celebration of Leon’s life in the way that it bears testament to his courage as a human being and as an artist. A lot of people with Leon’s condition or a similar one hide away, but Leon has put his soul out there to be a unique piece of art for the world to remember forever, and that’s worth celebrating.

Botha: I’m not sure that I necessarily see the work as a celebration of my life — I only know of my own experiences and how I interpret them. I’m kind of shaky to put out an idea about those kinds of things, less and less as I’m developing my own insights on it.

I believe polarity governs everything, so every truth is a half-truth. Every time you say “this is what something is”, you are defining but also confining at the same time. I want to show how my inner world speaks, in some cases, louder than the reality of my condition. The work doesn’t deny the condition; in fact, it embraces it with a higher understanding.

What inspired the imagery in the work — for instance, the strong presence of archetypal and mythological symbols?
Botha: For me, it was important to have different parts of my personality reflected. We addressed ideas such as tolerance, which speaks to other people’s tolerance of me when I’m out in public, and by the same token, the tolerance I have towards enduring that. That’s why I insisted we have a hammer in one shot because we tend to think of the limit to our tolerance, not the extent of it.

Clark: It all flowed beautifully; our ideas and inspiration would constantly evolve. Sometimes we’d arrive at a location and the whole idea for the shot would change. And that came from the trust we developed between us, and from being open. I think because of my background with reportage, I was able to be a little bit more spontaneous with grabbing those images.

Many of the images are hard to digest. Do you want to shock people into an understanding?
Clark: I think people have a certain amount of fear that makes them want to step back from some of the images because they don’t want to touch that side of themselves. Because the images are quite extreme, they inspire anger, love, fear — all those emotions — and that was part of the intention.

Botha: In a sense, people interpret a lot of what I do as quite dark. A lot of the time it’s not my intention to specifically shock, it’s just the nature of me expressing the fibre of my reality. I think a lot of people forget that common human experiences like pain, heartache and suffering do not pass you by because you have a condition, and are labelled in a different box. Rather, it becomes part of the fibre of what you are working with. To be honest, I cherish that because it’s like bearing scars; it is a part of my make-up.

We are all faced with questions of destiny and what we do in the time we have. Given your condition, Leon, are these questions more or less significant in your life?
Botha: The interesting thing for me is how people have a certain idea about my ageing illness. I’m 24 years old now, and I supposedly age at least four times faster. Do I look more than 100 years old? No. And I don’t move that way, either. I’m a DJ, I work turntables, I do things that are incredibly fast and accurate … Gordon and I do utilise this idea of time in our work, but for me personally, thinking about time and the future causes chaos and stress to come in. It’s actually only in shunting those ideas that I can personally deal with it.

In what way is Leon’s journey a reflection of the journey we all go through?
Clark: The reason we’ve symbolically glued together some of the images is because we are all driven by a common human spirit. Leon symbolises the fact that spiritually we are all the same — we all have our challenges; we all have our journeys. That’s what we are trying to say, in a way — take a look at that side of yourself and see if it’s okay with you, or not.

The exhibition runs from January 13 to February 13 at the João Ferreira Gallery, 70 Loop Street, Cape Town

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