Profile | Painting the line between two worlds: The mural art of Words Booi

Words and photographs by Nompilo Ndlovu

The streets are quiet in the small Grahamstown suburb. Bulelani ‘Words’ Booi holds a crumpled paper in a yellow gloved hand and a blackened paintbrush in the other. “My wife is going to kill me when she finds out I used her kitchen gloves”, he laughs. His grey sweat pants, black t-shirt and navy sun hat announce an ordinary man. Shoes make a crunching sound on the gravel as he takes a step back to observe through squinted eyes, the baby blue wall now sporting a few black paint strokes. A car passes slowly by and eyes stare at the man who now kneels at a wall with his paint brush, busy at work. Words pays no attention as he applies another stroke.

Defined black lines begin to take shape as he paints, curving and making their way into the ground. “This other lady said that it looks like ice cream,” he says.

Having initially studied engineering in Port Elizabeth, it was only five years ago that Words decided to move to Grahamstown in pursuit of his more artistic side. “I’ve always been an all-rounder,” he smiles. “I realised I don’t wanna fix people’s TVs and stuff”.

Creativity has always been a part of his life, “Drawing has always been a thing for me. You see my school books and you will see that there is a doodle there in the corner.” The calling of creativity has led him to be a comfortable outcast throughout his everyday life and education. “In school my lecturers will tell me ‘ey you don’t belong here’, you see the thing is I am not a conformist.”

“Art is itself a difficult industry to break into. Furthermore, the lack of recognition and appreciation, as well as the general stigma that surrounds street art makes it harder for artists like Words to live off their art.”

Unlike many graffiti writers and street artists who use the cloak of night to carry out their work, Words chooses to express his creativity on a public wall in broad daylight. He walks the thin line of creativity and vandalism as a street artist. “To come and spray penises and vagina’s in the middle of the night and write all these things in that form, that’s vandalism. But when you’re doing it during the day, and people know that you are doing it, and they know why you are doing it, it becomes something else.”

This particular piece has also been commissioned as part of Grahamstown’s recent Creative City initiative which aims to see every corner of the city being transformed into a sprawling and vibrant creative hub. While artists from all walks of life flock to Grahamstown’s annual National Arts Festival, the rest of the year remains decidedly silent, with only the occasional large scale event. With this opportunity, Words turns a bland, white wall into a colourful and creative work of art.

“I’m more like a weed in that pretty garden of yours, the more you pluck me out the more I come out. I don’t need your sun to grow, I don’t need your water to grow, I will grow.”

Art is itself a difficult industry to break into. Furthermore, the lack of recognition and appreciation, as well as the general stigma that surrounds street art makes it harder for artists like Words to live off their art. Generally, street artists in South Africa have been trying to make their work a recognised profession in the world. To get paid for it. The art found on the streets has been compared to an open art gallery of sorts, allowing everyday people to see it. Words argues that, “There is some thought in it, whether somebody vandalises or creates art, it’s a thought process.” This sort of public mentality has forced many artists to quit their pursuits in the art world and conform to something that will sustain and feed them. Words doesn’t often have the resources needed to do the work he does. The very paint he uses today is comprised of various leftover colours donated by friends. The limited palette range does not limit his creativity however.

Words is aware that he is dancing between two worlds. One of these worlds, the seemingly more concrete of the two, requires him to conform, and to provide for his toddler son and wife. Words lifts his eyes momentarily to observe the beckoning grey clouds, pregnant and heavy with rain. “I don’t think people were meant to go to work the whole time, we are building an idea of a minority whilst we are a majority,” he says. The other world constantly draws him to express himself in an unashamedly public and artistic way. “I’m more like a weed in that pretty garden of yours, the more you pluck me out the more I come out. I don’t need your sun to grow, I don’t need your water to grow, I will grow.”

He adds the final black lines to the partially blue wall and steps back to observe his work. “It’s dome houses,” he explains. Out of the simple lines, he explains the complex story behind the art work. How traditional Xhosa dome and eco-friendly houses inspired him. “Here you see a lot of settler cottages. I asked why would you come from Europe with these designs when you avoid that place, and still build the same place you avoided?” He folds the creased paper back into his bag, and packs up the brushes. He carefully removes his wife’s gloves from his hands. “With the struggle of land and houses today these houses are the simplest to build.” And with that, Words’ latest piece is brought to the public eye.

This piece was originally published in Edition 9 of Ja. magazine.

A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.