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Angel face: painting Bheki Mseleku

When The Orbit opened up, I happened to know the owner, Aymeric Péguillan. At its height I played there with Uhadi, Carlo Mombelli and the Prisoners of Strange, Language 12 and Bombshelter Beast, among others. Péguillan knew Bheki Mseleku was the most iconic and most neutral person. “Neutral” because he was so internationally acclaimed and yet so local, being from Durban. 

I was studying music at the Manhattan School of Music in New York when I was introduced to a lot of his music. The lecturers opened up that world for me. He was a major icon, and as I started learning some of his repertoire, I realised just why he was so revered. 

He was on the same level as the likes of the late Chick Corea and he played with all the greats. His was the discography of music you had to digest in order to learn what it took to be a professional at the highest level. He was one of the greatest masters and exports in the jazz scene. I chose an image from one of his album covers and felt that was going to be the one.

At the time, I was transitioning between music and murals. As a musician, I had always been a gun for hire, but as a mural artist, the success of the final creation depended solely on me. The financial factor was a big decider. By the time I was 32, I realised that we had all been earning the same rates (if not less now), than when I was 18 or 19 years old, yet we all had to deal with inflation, just like everybody else.

Pierre Crocquet’s photograph formed the basis of Justin Nomad’s mural in Braamfontein.

Psychologically, painting the mural, which is eight metres high, was interesting because I’m actually scared of heights. It’s a facebrick wall, and with painting on facebrick: there’s very little margin for error, not only regarding dealing with the porous nature of raw facebrick, but also having to constantly climb scaffolding for any small correction that might have been needed. 

That particular image was taken from the Best of Bheki Mseleku album cover and had the angelic feel I was looking to capture. The image itself was black-and-white, so I treated the black part as brick and the white part as highlights. It took about three days to complete from top to bottom.

Looking back on the mural now, I guess the only thing I might’ve changed would be a simpler font for his name, but then again, that’s the process an artist goes through as one grows with time. The true key to portraiture is capturing the image of an artist as well as their spirit.

I was at The Orbit at the time when it was at one of its peaks and doing so well. Every time I saw the mural, I never really looked at it as if it had been my work. I looked at it as an outsider. It was almost as if those three days that it took to paint was painted by the energy of a “muse” guiding me. A lot of people appreciated it and I was grateful for that. It was a way of using my art to give to the musicians who had given so much to me.

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Justin Nomad
Justin Nomad is a Johannesburg-based visual artist.

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