Artists pay tribute to ‘Jo’burg and art’s fiercest warrior’

The arts community bade farewell to Lesley Perkes, public art champion and chief executive of arts commissioning project management company Artatwork, who was laid to rest at Johannesburg’s Westpark Cemetery on February 15 following a long battle with cancer.

She was described as a public artist, curator, urban revivalist and art activist by the North Eastern Tribune, and as “Jo’burg’s and art’s fiercest warrior” by visual artist and fellow cultural agitator Germaine de Larch.

Self-described “genderqueer” photojournalist and artist Dean Hutton and photographer David Goldblatt pay tribute to their friend.

Beautiful, strong and real
Three years ago, on a whim, on Valentine’s Day, I asked my friends to come and get portraits made at my house. I asked them to bring someone or something they loved. And if they didn’t have a prop, I wanted their self-love. 

Not because of Valentine’s, but because I was avoiding a particularly awkward Valentine’s plan with a lover. It shifted my work in the best possible way, into a presentation and an action of love.

Lesley was the first to arrive with mom Sonia Perkes, and best friends Audrey Wainwright and Martha Mhlanga, in their pyjamas.

There was a lot of bawdy laughter that quieted into silence as they found their pose, spooning on the bed. These were my very first bed portraits.

I wasn’t even Dean until the following year [Dean was previously known as Nadine].

I made individual portraits of Martha, Sonia and Audrey, but Lesley asked if she could come back later to shoot a portrait nude. Sonia was the first selection for that shoot. Lesley was why I kept making these portraits. Lesley wasn’t a young woman – she was no maiden – but her body was beautiful.

She was beautiful, vulnerable, strong and so fucking real. I told her she had the most perfect breasts I’d ever seen.

They were perfect even after she lost so much weight. I don’t think I realised how much Lesley helped me on my journey to who I am today – as an artist, as a human – until today. Fuck, I’m so lucky. – Dean


She didn’t just talk, she did
For Lesley Perkes, art was lived and inseparable from justice. Art was to be expressed, seen, known and experienced not in the abstract but in life itself. She pursued art with imagination, intelligence, patience, impatience, fierce courage, unbounded generosity and unquenchable passion.

She brought art to our streets, our buildings, our bus stops and our sidewalks, neighbourhoods, businesses and lives.

For life and art to be, justice had to prevail. Where there was injustice, Lesley did not, like most of us, say: “That’s terrible; we ought to do something.”

She did it. When street traders, licensed and unlicensed, were driven off the streets of Jo’burg by our unrelentingly virtuous municipality and its police, she attacked, vigorously and effectively, questioning and challenging, allowing no slack for official obfuscation.

She was the bane of officialdom and yet the spark of its occasional ignition to imaginative betterment.

It comforts and inspires to celebrate her life, but in truth, her death is an appalling loss. – David Goldblatt

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