A lazy, first-thought association with township art can conjure up the familiar sight of men peddling tiny township scenes complete with replica corrugated-iron roofs and curios being sold en masse at intersections in affluent areas. Although predominantly inspired by his experience of growing up in Johannesburg’s Alexandra, the vibrant digital work of Lazi “Greiispaces” Mathebula couldn’t be further from this aesthetic.
‘A portrait, a pair of shoes, a street dog’
The “Greiispaces” moniker reveals something about Mathebula’s approach, taking something seemingly neutral (the colour grey) but adding a vernacular twist to it. His straightforward subject matter – a portrait, a pair of shoes, a street dog – receives a wild transformation from neon dashes and patterned etchings when it reaches his screen. It’s a style that can’t go unnoticed – and isn’t. Recent projects have seen him working with brands such as Nike, Legit, Boogaloos and Supremebeing. In 2013 he was selected as one of Design Indaba’s emerging creative people. He says: “Everything happens organically if you put in proper work. Whatever it is I’m working on now, determines what’s next.”
STR.CRD, a street-culture showcase currently the trend in Johannesburg, selects an up-and-coming designer each year to create the look and feel for the festival branding. Mathebula was a natural choice for 2014. His answer to the open brief was to create a totem dressed in layers of clothes to represent the street fashion that is an important part of the festival. The initial logo was then extended into a visual language with cultural cues such as a boom box, a bucket hat, Zulu sandals and skateboards.
These contemporary symbols of street style and self-expression are Mathebula’s signature. His earlier work includes illustrations of coveted sneakers, five-panel caps and patterned button-up shirts that would be big sellers if they were ever to be translated into the real thing.
Looking to the township for inspiration
Mathebula has always lived the philosophy of looking local to find the new and original. For him, an idea for a new illustration comes from the energy of the township – its language and ways of communicating, unique subcultures, a sharp fashion sense, Zion churches, go-carts, the Sunday foods, izikhothane (swaggering dance-offs) and three-legged dogs.
This background not only provides inspiration for his art but also informs Mathebula’s pursuit of a creative career. He credits his creativity to the improvisation so prevalent in the place where he grew up. “We are our own people. Our culture is not a form of escapism. Our culture is as rich as everyone else’s. Please let us be the ones to tell our stories,” Mathebula says.