HOMMAGE TO LESLEY PERKES 1961 – 2015
It is with great sadness that we share with you the passing of Lesley Perkes, Jozi’s greatest lover. Our thoughts are with Lesley’s family and friends.
Born in Johannesburg in 1961, Lesley was educated at Wits University but more so in the University of Life.
Lesley was a public arts producer, arts-activist, writer, speaker-performer, instigator, a person who broke the rules and made stuff happen, a drama queen, an organiser, a well-wisher, an eternal optimist, a big mouth and above all mommy of one beautiful son, Chili. Lesley’s dreams were so big we could all fit in.
Lesley has driven the commissioning of a wide range of public art projects in Johannesburg and across the country. She was behind one of the city’s most intimate public works of art, Bedtime Story, a king-size concrete bed complete with padded headboard and crumpled duvet on Albertina Sisulu Drive, outside her house in Troyeville. She made Johannesburg and many other places amazing public spaces to be in.
“I like making myself useful. I am no longer interested in how hard that is. The best works I have ever been involved in making where experiments that could have been catastrophes. I will be scared when it is time. Before that, our windows are wide open.” Lesley Perkes
Mail and Guardian – Artists pay tribute to ‘Jo’burg and art’s fiercest warrior’
City Press – Obituary: Lesley Perkes – The good fairy of public art
North Eastern Tribune – A final bedtime story
Rand Daily Mail – A Tribute to the late Lesley Perkes, Champion of urban art
Institut Francais – Homage to Lesley Perkes
Germaine de Larch – life does not die. art does not die. joburg will not die. a tribute to the life of lesley perkes @LesPersonas
There was something peculiarly brave and creative and quick about Lesley that made her quite memorable. She didn’t cultivate her appearance yet she stood out in any group. Her aura came from being joyous when engaging with the most arduous of projects, fertile in vision, firm in values, eager to share her innovative ideas, and full of fun and energy. Lesley was distinctively sure-footed as she scaled the perilous interface of art, money, bureaucracy, landscape and popular imagination. We loved her, looked forward to encounters with her and now miss her deeply. May her life and her values continue to inspire us all to do unusual things in beautiful and productive ways.Albie Sachs and Vanessa SeptemberCape Town.
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. 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
REDREAMING THE SKYLINE The most important project for Lesley was the tower, which was her icon, her sentinel, the last thing she saw before she closed her eyes and the first thing that opened her day.For the past few years she has been passionately trying to clean up the Hillbrow area and paint the Hillbrow tower, make it a healthy clear space for children to grow up and people to live with dignity.She has been collaborating with Gerard Bester of the Hillbrow Theatre project, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Milisuthando Bongela and João Orecchia in consultation with Telkom and the City of Joburg to make this public art project an example of social and urban renewal.On the way to one of her presentations she was attacked by two homeless people who stole her phone. She was injured, covered in blood and still gave the performance of a lifetime, inspiring the boardroom suits and reminding them of the warm blood pumping through their veins.– De Villiers is an award-winning poet and writer* Read Charl Blignaut’s interview with Perkes about the Hillbrow Tower project herePhillippa Yaa de Villiers
Even on her deathbed, public art activist Lesley Perkes dreamed of a new city.At her funeral last Sunday, the cultural community turned out in force to say goodbye. Charlotte Bauer remembers her.Lesley Perkes was the good fairy of public art. But she was never airy-fairy.It was her passion to turn plain things – grim buildings, scrappy street corners – into arresting works of art. It was her power to make it happen.That she succeeded in getting so much public art on to the streets of this country – despite the expense, the political protocols, the demands of city partners and corporate sponsors and the temperaments of artists – was remarkable.But then, as Lesley once said, “most of our work is about stamina … about writing another proposal, asking for another meeting”.She would say yes to projects that “nobody in their right mind” would consider because “I am not in my right mind”.It was with this Lesley in mind – freestyling visionary meets micromanager – that I invited her to pitch for a Sunday Times public art project I was involved with in 2006.
As the time approached for her to come in to the office and persuade my bosses to part with extravagant money to build 40 bespoke street sculptures, I grew nervous.
Lesley looked like someone emerging from a three-day music festival in the desert, and I wasn’t sure how her rumpled urban hippie vibe would go down in the boardroom. Would she wear one of her crazy outfits – the Day-Glo “Danger! Artists at Work” bib or, yikes, the uMlungu T-shirt? Would her hair be zigzag shaved up one side?
She arrived in a suit with her hair in a bun – and proceeded to wow the suits. She had done her homework, was budget-savvy and, without once saying “multidimensionality” she convinced us to greenlight a risky, original art adventure.
Over the following 18 months, Lesley made good on every one of her promises to build small, beautiful art pieces, each telling a story of our history on the spot where it happened, on street corners throughout South Africa.
Lesley’s company, artatwork, was the driving force behind many instantly familiar public works around Johannesburg, including Cell C’s building-size city murals, Mary Sibande’s art billboards of the glamorous domestic worker Sophie and Doung Anwar Jahangeer’s globe sculpture commissioned for the 2010 Fifa World Cup at Ellis Park.
Last year I bumped into her at an opening. It turned out we were both involved in 20 Years of Democracy projects – she for the Goethe Insitute’s international exhibition of apartheid photography, I for City Press’ yearlong coverage of the anniversary. It took 20 seconds for us to decide to partner again.
Lesley made herself a hard bed to lie on. She didn’t always have steady work; she knocked on many more doors than were opened to her. She was mugged more times than a coffee cup as she tour-guided potential sponsors around Hillbrow to realise her dream of painting the iconic tower.
She was also the creative force behind one of the city’s most intimate public works of art, a king-size concrete bed complete with padded headboard and crumpled duvet on Albertina Sisulu Drive, outside her house in Troyeville.
It is titled Bedtime Story. Goodnight Lesley.
DREAMING REALLY BIG We all have dreams, but some of us have huge dreams. Lesley Perkes was one of those who didn’t mess around with the small stuff. She was an endless source of ideas and passion for huge public art projects that could change our city and the lives of those in it. Decorating massive towers, putting huge paintings on huge buildings, mobilising dozens of artists to speak out about political and social issues … These were the things always on her mind.And she was one of the few people who actually pursued their big dreams. She had endless energy and persistence in trying to convince the city or corporate South Africa to do bold and different things. Many of those who worked in the city’s cultural bureaucracy will tell you how she hounded and pursued them with ideas and plans, refusing to let anyone equivocate.Lesley cared about people, about art, culture, public space, public discussion, about her country and city – not as a place or a site, but a space occupied by real people.She had little time for cant. At her funeral, one of her friends told me that whenever he saw her she would say, “Haven’t you made enough money yet? Isn’t it time you did something useful?” And she had a bunch of suggestions, I expect, for what this person could do.The attendance at her funeral was a tribute. It was one of the biggest I have been to in a long time, and the crowd was all kinds: young and old, businessmen, bureaucrats and bums, artists and con artists, musicians and mavericks. Mostly mavericks, come to pay tribute to a marvellous, big-hearted maverick.– Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies and director of the Journalism Programme at the University of the WitwatersrandAnton Harber
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
QUEEN OF TROYEVILLE Here are some quotes from a 2013 interview with Lesley I did for the Sunday Times:“I’ve been here for 20 years. I live on what is apparently the wrong side of the tracks, with a beautiful view of the city. I wouldn’t leave here.”“The best thing about Troyeville is, when we say community we not talking about the type that gets spoken about at corporate cocktail parties. We know each other, a lot of us; we know each other well enough to have keys to each other’s houses, and there is a lot of real genuine care and love between the people who have lived here so long. This is where the artists, the intellectuals live. Between Yeoville and Troyeville they are the most densely populated artist communities – visual artists, writers, poets, musicians, the odd journalist. Everyone wants to make Maboneng and Newtown the creative capitals. We feed those places. We live here we work there.”“Troyeville is very beautiful, on the eastern edge of inner city. It’s an important gateway into the city. The view is very important I suppose. To live in Troyeville on top of a hill is the best place, sort of like living in Cape Town without the sea. And we think of Bez Valley as the valley of happiness.”– Brodie is a journalist and the author of numerous books, including The Joburg BookNechama Brodie
HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD Lesley was a champion of the arts (responsible for giant artworks that covered buildings in downtown Jozi and much of the public art for the 2010 World Cup), champion of the underdog and just all round champion. A beautiful soul who made the world a better and prettier place. She lived life at full tilt, which is the one small comfort for those she has left behind and who now feel the vacuum. You shall be missed, dearly.– Chang is a trend analyst and founder of Flux TrendsDion Chang
A few days ago I spoke to my filmmaker friend John Akomfrah in London via skype. I mentioned that Lesley Perkes had died and the wide range of people who attended her funeral. I said that she was like the best of the activist/producer/cultural animateurs we had been fortunate enough to know when we were young in Britain. People who had taken us under their wings and allowed us to grow. He understood her significance instantly. The Teme people of West Africa have a saying that once in a thousand moons a truth-teller is born; Lesley was one of those fearless truth-tellers….Pervaiz Khan
A final bedtime story TROYEVILLE – FOLLOWING a long battle with cancer, public artist, curator, urban revivalist and art activist Lesley Perkes has died, leaving Joburg to bid her a sad farewell. February 17, 2015The public bids public artist, curator, urban revivalist and art activist Lesley Perkes a sad farewell. “Lesley Perkes, Joburg’s and art’s fiercest warrior, has left Troyeville in the only way she ever would,” wrote visual artist and fellow art-activist Germaine de Larch on her blog, Life Writ Large, on hearing of the death of the celebrated artist and inner-city champion on 12 February. A public artist and campaigner dedicated to the re-imagination of Johannesburg’s inner city, Perkes was seemingly unstoppable, a force that the artistic community, corporate culture and the government sector alike had to reckon with.Born in Johannesburg’s inner city in 1961, Perkes remained forever fascinated by the art of public space and the neighbourhood, and was instrumental in the commissioning of numerous temporary and permanent sculpture installations and collaborative public artworks around Johannesburg and South Africa. As the chief executive officer of arts commissioning project management company, artatwork, Perkes created a bridge between artists both urban and rural, the private and public sectors, and funding organisations to promote the integration of the arts into urban regeneration and the city environment.One of her own pet projects was the Hillbrow Precinct Project, through which Perkes hoped to persuade the City of Johannesburg to transform Hillbrow into a ‘canvas for the imagination’ with its distinctive tower once more the focal point of the city skyline.“I like making myself useful. I am no longer interested in how hard that is,” she said of her public arts activism.In her own right, Perkes created performance and visual art including the famous Troyeville Bedtime Story, a pile of rubble near her home, which she transformed into an iconic piece of landscape art – featured in the 2012 Joburg Public Art Conference and the Mail and Guardian’s Book of Women. She was selected to give a TED Talk in 2013, and regularly spoke to a wide range of audiences.
The passing of the self-confessed “Instigator. Speaker. Wild person. Book” was widely mourned, with fans and friends taking to social media to pay tribute. “We will miss you Lesley Perkes. Rest in peace,” tweeted the Goethe Institute of Johannesburg, while Gallery Momo tweeted “It is with a heavy heart and inconsolable sadness that we bid farewell to our most beloved, dearest Lesley Perkes.” In the words of De Larch, “Sleep well, Lesley. You are the Troyeville Bedtime Story, and we will read you like all good oral traditions to generations to come.”
Perkes’ funeral was held on 15 February at the Jewish section of West Park Cemetery at 10.30am. In the true spirit and fashion of Perkes, the public was instructed to wear comfortable clothing and wear lots of sun screen.Last year I quizzed art entrepreneur Lesley Perkes, who died far too young last month, about her perfect city, and in her typical generous and caring way she said: “My perfect Joburg would have a mayor who encourages us to be ourselves and celebrates us for who we are. “My perfect Joburg has police who help old ladies across the road, fixes the street traders’ tables that are falling down and makes sure that if Pikitup don’t come and clean, the metro police help out to make sure we can eat off the floor. “My perfect Joburg is where I (can) walk at 2am from Troyeville to Maboneng and from Maboneng to Hillbrow to go dancing at the top of the tower. “In my perfect Joburg all the homeless children and old people have homes and are not sleeping beneath Joe Slovo Bridge or in the park next to my house. “My perfect Joburg has a gentle side to it not seen since someone found gold here and the place went berserk.”
I met Lesley when I started working for the JDA in 2010. She was a key part of some the JDA legends that were told to me … stories of impossible projects delivered against the odds; stories of creativity and magic that made the City of Johannesburg so special; stories of respect for heritage, history, culture and art; stories of making daily life easier and better for even the most marginalised and vulnerable people; and stories of building a new, democratic urban culture and identity.
I tried not to be too friendly with Lesley at first. I felt it important to maintain a professional distance in the context of her bidding for JDA tenders and being contracted into some of our professional teams. But she was immune to my formal approach. Irrepressible, funny and charming, she crept past my defences to become a friend and trusted advisor. My conversations with Lesley were always meaningful and quite intense: She challenged me to be more sensitive to the needs and aspirations of the poorest residents of our city; and she encouraged me to be more assertive about opposing administrative injustices like the eviction of street traders, systemic xenophobia, and tender processes that exclude small businesses and artists because of red tape.
Lesley was also inspirational because of her endless supply of good ideas. She convinced me to try to get the Hillbrow Tower project into the business plan for the JDA…. and we succeeded. We went to the Capital City together to try to get Telkom to become a partner with the City of Joburg in developing the neighbourhood around their tower and turning their tower into an artwork … and we succeeded. Nobody could say no to Lesley. But despite the good will and good intentions, this sort of project is difficult and frustrating and often complicated. Lesley agonised about every slow inch that was gained. She worked tirelessly, and pushed us as though we were running out of time…. nobody realised it then, but she actually was running out of time. The Hillbrow Tower project will go ahead – perhaps a bit differently to the way she imagined it – but the team of dedicated development professionals who remain at the JDA and at Telkom will do their best to honour her vision.
Personally, I miss Lesley’s friendship every day. She continues to inspire me and I find myself thinking ‘what would Lesley do’ quite regularly. I have so many conversations about our tough socio-political issues queued up in my head to discuss with her, and am terribly sad that she is no longer on the other end of an email, or calling me first thing in the morning before anyone else can get my attention. My life is less colourful and the City of Johannesburg is poorer for having lost Lesley Perkes. But, I am grateful to have had a chance to work with her and I am sure her legacy will endure.
– Sharon Lewis