Leon Botha, an accomplished South African painter and DJ, as well as one of the world’s oldest survivors of progeria, a rare genetic condition that causes premature aging, died following heart complications on June 5.
Diagnosed at the age of four, Botha grew up in Cape Town’s northern suburbs with his parents, Johan and Elmien Botha, and his two brothers Nic and Charl. From early on, Botha refused to dwell on his condition, insisting on being recognised for who he was inside — an artist, a leader, a friend and an intellectual.
Botha’s love affair with art started at the age of three. “He was always drawing; if it wasn’t on paper, it was on serviettes, or anything else,” says Elmien. In Grade 3, Botha started at the Tygerberg Art Centre, and left formal schooling in Grade 9 to pursue his art studies full-time.
Working predominantly in paint, his art has a dark undertone. “That’s how he felt. He struggled with depression. He didn’t want to be stuck in his ‘Judus’ body, as he used to describe it,” says Elmein.
Friend and confidant Professor Sandra van der Merwe says of Botha: “He lived in this twilight zone, beyond his years chronologically and physically. He reached a level of maturity it usually takes a lifetime to realise.”
Music meets art
Botha’s passion for music, and hip-hop in particular, resulted in him deejaying at gigs in and around Cape Town under the name DJ Solarize.
He came to work with acclaimed South African band Die Antwoord, featuring in their world-renowned music video Enter the Ninja, as well as opening for several of their shows. In January 2007, Botha had his first solo art exhibition, titled Liquid Swords; I am HipHop. His second solo exhibition, Liquid Swords; Slices of Lemon opened in March 2009.
In January 2010, his collaborative work with photographer and friend Gordon Clark, Who Am I? Transgressions, exhibited for the first time in Cape Town. This series of theatrical portraits of Botha helped him recover from a bout of depression.
During the year he spent collaborating with Botha, Clark says, “He opened up and in that process he healed — He didn’t try to disguise himself, he revealed himself”. It was this work with Clark that facilitated one of the defining moments in Botha’s life: travelling to the Netherlands for the launch of the exhibition there.
After triple-bypass heart surgery in 2005, Botha suffered a stroke in November 2010, just before his exhibition with Clark was to be shown in Berlin. It was at this time, Elmien says, that the reality of his fragility came flooding to the fore.
“I always made an effort to not brood over the time he may have left. I just enjoyed every day I had with him. He wasn’t just a son; he was an old soul who taught me so much,” she says.