Capetonian artist Brett Williams has a knack for exploring rawness and vulnerability in the human form through his daring art pieces. In part one of our discussion, he talked to one small seed about his craft and his process of creation. In part two Williams tells us about his discovery of his colour-blindness, his art pet peeves, and placing Gumtree ads for nude models.

Image: ‘Self’

You’re a self-taught artist. You didn’t go to any schools. Did this help build your aesthetic?

I dropped out of Michaelis art school after six weeks. I just didn’t enjoy it. I was too young and too insecure and scared. I was eighteen and a bundle of insecurity. I didn’t fit in, it wasn’t me. I was at SACS up until standard eight and

I almost got kicked out of art class because they found out I was colour-blind

and I found out at the same time. Then I went to Rosebank House College and was allowed to experiment and it was fantastic.

So you found out in high school you were colour-blind? How did it happen?

Yeah, in standard eight. I was in class doing a sculpture and I was doing it dark green, and my teacher said why are you doing it in dark green? She said it’s maroon and I said well no, and that’s how I figured it out. So, for me brown and red and green kind of blur, as does grey and green as we found out, so yeah (laughs).

Do you think being self-taught is better than being school-taught?

I think it has its advantages and disadvantages. I think people who are taught at school are able to work much more efficiently. I’m not basing that on any knowledge, it’s just from what I’ve seen, but they seem to have techniques that they can fall back on when things get tough. Whereas for me, my fear takes over. I know I can do it and I know I’m capable of doing it. I just kind of get nervous.

A big thing with my art is I’m always looking for affirmation that what I do is actually good

I know technically it’s quite good, but it’s recognition from people in the art world. When your friends and family say it, it’s great. But it doesn’t really make a difference until someone in the industry says, ‘you know what, you’ve got great talent’. It keeps you going.

Image: ‘Stillness’

Who was the first person you ever did a portrait of?

I did a portrait of a girl I was in love with at school. It was the first time I did a picture of someone that represented an aspect of me and I knew it was a turning point. It wasn’t very good, but I’ve still got it and… I loved it. Then I gave up art for a long time and in 2008 I started again. I met this German girl who was an art student and we started chatting about art and I became really enthusiastic about it again. I put up an ad on Gumtree for nude models — I felt like a dirty old man, it was horrible — but when I met them I had a contract drawn up to say the pictures wouldn’t be used for anything else. I took some photos of one girl who arrived and her legs were like hairier than mine and I couldn’t really use her. The next girl I used was incredibly angry and I couldn’t use her either. I was kind of like, ‘Well, what am I going to do now?’, and then I found Katie. This girl called up who was nineteen and I just thought she’s too young, she’s nineteen and I’ve got to take photos of her. She was the most amazing model ever. She just kind of looked up into the distance and there it was. Amazing. First picture, boom!

How difficult is it to find nude models?

I just ask people. I remember asking three people in one night. I had to have a few beers, but then I was like, ‘I’m an artist’.

It’s weird, but people get excited at the idea of having a portrait of themselves. What’s interesting is that they get vulnerable and shy

Some people don’t, so everyone reacts differently. And I get really nervous because I know that when I’m taking photographs that it’s that very vulnerable space for them and for me because I know that they’re nervous and shy so I start shaking. It’s very weird. I show them the photos — sometimes people don’t want to see — but if we get a good pose I get really excited and say, ‘look this is amazing, you look incredible, what do you think?’ and it’s a collaborative experience. So it’s not just me shooting and being like, ‘wow, thanks bye’. I try to engage them in the process.

Image: ‘Stare’

Do you think there’s a difference between being an artist who’s based in Sydney and being an artist who’s based in Cape Town?

Yes, there is. I don’t know…

I don’t necessarily think people are more open-minded in Sydney, but I mean for the little amount of work I did there it seemed to be more welcoming

I have exhibited in a group show at Everard Read and I sold one piece after a while there, but it’s like people just aren’t interested in it, it seems. You know on Tumblr people are always sharing images, reblogging and that’s cool, but I’d love to become an international artist. I don’t think I’ll become a South African artist. I just don’t see it happening. I think the art is more international.

You’re work is up on Lost at E Minor, which is an international art platform. Do you think South Africans have to be more actively aggressive in getting their work out there to get international recognition?

It’s really difficult and I’m learning as I go along. But it’s starting a blog or website, sharing on Facebook, Twitter, getting as many people as you can to see it. The first time I tried to send work to Lost at E Minor I submitted four stories of other artists and myself and the guy only published one of an American artist I know. So it took someone else getting published. I also think I’m quite shy — I get along with people — but I’m shy to ask for stuff, so networking is difficult.

You have to get in touch with people and create a context to work in. You’ll never get a reply just sending stuff to galleries. Ever.

Image: ‘Julia’

You were saying that South Africans are a tough crowd to please. Do you think that street art has gained a lot more momentum here than private art?

Yeah, street art seems to be the new thing. Sometimes I feel a bit despondent because my art feels quite traditional. I have friends who are street artists, who do amazingly well. They go all over the world exhibiting, they get invited places, and you can collaborate in street art. Not to sound condescending, but it’s like the pop-art of now. It can have a message or it can just be beautiful.

Their stuff is so covered as well. It’s on a building or a wall and people are always so interested to see that kind of stuff, and they can watch you while you work. For me, I see one aspect of it as being urban improvement. Some cities have sculptures, for example.

you go to Rome and there are sculptures everywhere — and it’s amazing — but street art can do the same in certain cities. It gives a cultural sense.

I like some street artists a lot.

You describe your art as traditional art and nude artwork has been around for a while. Why do you think that there is still a stigma attached to nude art?

I don’t know. I’ve done a few things.

I used to design sex toys. My boundaries around vulnerability and being open about things are quite large.

I really strive for honesty, which is what I try to put into my work and when I made sex toys they were these beautiful, beautiful hand-blown clear glass — they almost looked like ornaments. Pink stems or black stems in these amazing boxes and I designed everything. They didn’t sell here. Everyone who saw them was like wow, you could put them on a mantelpiece, they were lovely. People either weren’t ready for it or they didn’t get the idea of having it as an exclusive gift. So maybe I’m on the wrong track altogether, I don’t know. For me it’s about the quality of work. Stuff you can really feel proud about.

I often wish my art was smarter. I wish it was so creative that I could blow everyone’s minds or be an amazing street artist, but you kind of have to accept who you are and that’s what I do because of who I am.

Image: ‘Katie’

Any pet peeves in art?

(Laughs) how many pages do you have? Let me preface it by saying

maybe I don’t get a lot of art. Maybe something’s missing in me that sees the depth of some of the art I don’t like. There needs to be work or talent that you can see in the art

When I saw the article about Tilda Swinton in a glass case in the Museum of Modern Art. You can say it’s our voyeurism as human beings but you can also watch reality TV. It’s the same message. Someone said it was a feminist piece because she was like a caged animal but she’s in a glass case and she’s comfortable and having a nap in her day clothes so just maybe I don’t get it, but I think it’s contrived and I don’t like stuff that feels contrived, because it’s not honest. That’s what I would say. Art that feels dishonest and contrived. Otherwise everything becomes art.

How would you describe the mood of your work?

Unfortunately I connect more to sadness than to happiness, I think. It’s a feeling that resonates more with me. And I suffer from depression and I’m getting better, but I suppose I’m just on a different path to other people. I get depressed and lost and overwhelmed and other days I feel really good.

Image: ‘Katie’

Images: Brett Williams
Interview: Ra’eesa Pather