It was soon after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, when much of the country was bubbling with rapture, hope and determination, that South African artist Beezy Bailey met David Bowie. He nervously waited for the great man to arrive: he, an emerging artist, was to be interviewed by the Thin White Duke.
“We were all in a euphoric state. The great knight had come off Robben Island and it was a time that I could almost describe as the opposite of what we are now living in. Bowie very much enjoyed what he saw in South Africa, in Jo’burg and Cape Town,” Bailey recollects.
Bowie, whose birthname is David Jones, died at the age of 69 on January 10 after an 18-month battle with cancer. Although tributes to him have highlighted his music and acting career, Bailey remembers Bowie as a painter whose artwork was inseparable from the rest of his talents.
It was that synergy between the South African artist and the British singer that built a friendship that would last more than 20 years and produce 50 artworks. It was Bailey’s suggestion that the two collaborate on a painting instead of the usual question-and-answer interview process that ignited their friendship.
“It was such an intense experience, working together. It was more than just an interview, obviously. It was more than meeting a guy at a dinner party. It was a period of very intensive creative expression together. That’s a highly bonding experience,” Bailey says. He heard of Bowie’s death when a friend in Cape Town called him to relay the message.
Bailey’s time with Bowie was marked by playfulness and seriousness in the art they made.
There was humour in their collaborative painting process: in one instance, Bailey recollects the two playing “Exquisite Corpse” (an old French parlour game brought into art circles by the surrealist movement in the early 20th century), where they would draw the face and neck of a portrait before taking turns to collaborate on the body, limb for limb. They would cover the pieces of the body they had completed as they went along, finally revealing the entire piece, laughing at how weirdly it turned out. But the process also saw deeply personal conversations.
“What we talked about is certainly one of the most important things. I had a stepbrother who suffers from schizophrenia and he was in [psychiatric hospital] Valkenberg at the time. Bowie, too, had a schizophrenic half-brother, who ended up throwing himself under a train,” Bailey says.
“Bowie visited an institution in Germany where they had a section in the mental care where they made art. He described it vividly to me and managed to make me laugh. The therapeutic importance of making art for mental illness was something we spent time talking about.”
According to Bailey, Bowie’s approach to art focused more on the process than the product.
“Something it’s taken me a long time to get my head around is the importance of the process versus the product, just in terms of general art production, and how that emphasis is important in such a market-driven art world. Also, the freedom to be myself as an outsider. That [Outside] was the name of an album he did,” Bailey says.
While the world knew the star David Bowie, Bailey became familiar with David Jones, a man he describes as intelligent, funny and gentle. For Bailey, he was simply a human, and an equal in the art world.
“He said he’d met someone who was a fellow pirate in that we loot treasures of creativity wherever we can,” Bailey says. “It was just great to hang out with him and forget that he was David Bowie until somebody would recognise him.”
Although Bowie is renowned for his innovation in music and his ability to reinvent himself, he also wasn’t shy to take what he could from other artists, Bailey says. He might have been a visionary, but his pursuit of creativity wasn’t saintly. “He took what he wanted and moved. He was no Mother Theresa. He was pretty ruthless in getting what he needed for his thing. That’s how he worked and I respect that,” Bailey says.
It’s been years since Bailey last saw Bowie in person; they kept in touch from afar and Bailey watched as Bowie slowly began to show signs of ageing. Appearance was one of his vulnerabilities.
“He was very attentive to his appearance and his weight. When I told him that [British rock group] Jethro Tull was in South Africa and they had potbellies, he said: ‘It’s a bloody disgrace’.”
In the early days, Bailey and Bowie maintained their friendship by telephone. That soon changed as time moved on and Bowie continued to contact Bailey from New York, London and wherever else he was visiting.
DB, the work Bailey produced before hearing of his friend’s death.
“I’m not going to tell you that I was close friends with him, because I wasn’t. Nonetheless, I maintained contact and some kind of friendship over 20 years,” Bailey says.
“We stopped speaking years ago because of the advent of email. I used to so look forward to those phone calls [that would begin]: ‘Hello Beezy, David here!’ and then we’d chat away from wherever he was. Then, you know, he went on to emails, so all our communication was mainly via email for the last 10 years at least.”
The two were last in touch on December 31, when Bailey emailed Bowie a photograph of his toes, which his daughter had colourfully painted. He wished Bowie a happy new year, signing the email: “Love, Twinkletoes”. Bowie’s last words to Bailey were simply: “love it. entitled: ‘nude’. happy back at you, dbx”.
The day before Bowie died, Bailey produced an artwork of a character with a human body and elephant face, with its trunk stretched towards the stars. Bluebirds burst from the figure’s heart, fluttering upwards to the sky.
Bowie released the video of his new song Lazarus three days before his death. In the last line of the song, he sings: “Oh I’ll be free/ just like that bluebird/ oh I’ll be free/ ain’t that just like me?”
Taking inspiration from the song and the coincidence of the imagery in his art at the time of Bowie’s death, Bailey has named the character in his painting “DB”.
“The lasting effect he had on me was to sing like a bluebird, in a silver forest, songs of love. To be alive and aware every moment, to see the weirdness, ugliness, beauty, irony and general magic of the world around us every day and, like an alchemist, turn it to gold in our art,” Bailey says.