Precious angelic children, Lady D, family portraits, the Obamas or a massive sculpture looking like real food. And all of this, in a constant feeling of underlying tension. The South-African artist, Fanie Buys, portrays Christmas scenes in his new exhibition Happy Birthday, Jesus! on view at 99 Loop Gallery in Cape Town until October 26.
However, the adoration and fascination for this nearly theatrical festivity full of bling bling are translated into an obscure aura that surrounds his work. In his own words, he remembers Christmas as “a very forced, insular affair where we (my immediate family) very tensely tried to tolerate one another in the house all day”. However, he loves drama, contradiction and confusion, so what better way to achieve so than by mixing your sweetest dreams with your most awkward nightmares? Buys aims to create something off-putting and, at the same time, alluring, like the dichotomy of life. We speak with him about the horoscope, Jesus and what’s on his wishlist.
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Have you read that essay about grids by Rosalind Krauss?, 2019
You have said multiple times that you’re a Scorpio, so I couldn’t think of a better way to start getting to know you than asking what characteristics of this horoscope sign are the most significant in your personality.
Wow, this is such a great and totally unexpected question! I would like to precise this by saying that the only tenets of astrology that concern me are those which pertain directly to me, which is in itself very Scorpio. I consider the following my most Scorpio aspects: I love talking about death and dying, I have a deep interest in spirituality but a general distrust of people who claim to be spiritual, I really like savoury and vinegary foods, I have greasy skin, a complex relationship with Madonna and her work (both the pop star and the religious figure), and I wear contact lenses.
Does your work also have the characteristics of the sign Scorpio? How would you describe it?
Many of my paintings are Scorpios, this is true, but not all of them are born under this most auspicious of signs. I think the best way to distinguish these works would be to look for some of the following characteristics. Portraits in profile are Scorpio, as well as portraits that feature particularly marvellous noses. However, portraits of people with Roman noses are Capricorn. Paintings of precocious children tend to be Scorpio, particularly a toddler at rest hatching up new shenanigans – Scorpios reading this will understand. Paintings of drag queens are Gemini, but paintings of women or men who look like they’re in drag but aren’t are Scorpio. Paintings which I claim to be of myself in drag are Cancerian. Paintings of The Beales of Grey Gardens are Scorpio (unless I have painted the Libra man).
Wow, there are many ways to differentiate a painting…
I could write an addendum to Sun signs on this but I’m going to exhibit uncharacteristic restraint and stop talking about this. I am more than happy to discuss this at length with anyone who wishes to contact me.
Born in South Africa, you graduated from the Michaelis School of Fine Art in 2017. Since then, you have been a junior school art teacher and a practising artist. What has your creative journey been like?
Underneath this semi-Edwardian veneer of eccentric spelling and enthusiastic punctuation (!!!,…?), I am actually quite the pragmatist. Teaching was always my in-case-of-emergency-smash-glass career option. What I didn’t expect (be warned this is trite) is how much my children would inspire me. The children I teach are dry, wry, witty, aloof, sardonic, effusive and brutally honest. It’s been really refreshing, and to be honest, I consider it quite a privilege to be working as a teacher. That being said, I am constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul time-wise. I’m incredibly good at managing my time. My diary does look like King Tut’s tomb, but in one thousand years, archeologists will unearth my writings and be amazed at how this young homosexual got everything done.
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Powerade Painting (Powerade inexplicably potent force in church functions), 2019
Your second exhibition in 99 Loop Gallery is titled Happy Birthday, Jesus. It’s said that wishing for a happy birthday before the actual date brings bad luck. Because it’s October, aren’t you afraid? Or do you wish bad luck to Jesus?
NO! NO! Jesus, I’m so sorry, I don’t want to wish you bad luck at all! I chose October because it’s when all the shopping centres start to put out Christmas things. It’s that time of the year when people see a bit of holly and get scared of Christmas coming. I think if you could glean one thing from this interview is that I love confusion and contradictions. The drama, madness, and raw human emotion that come with feeding a Christmas cake brandy for six months before the time is the zeitgeist which feeds me.
But seriously, why did you decide to name the exhibition Happy Birthday, Jesus?
Well, Christmas is Jesus’ birthday. I think it really appealed to me because it is slightly sacrilegious – but more charming than offensive. It’s the sort of thing a child can get away with and an adult can’t. Like I said in my artist’s statement, happy birthday Jesus! is something I remember announcing with glee as a child, secure in the knowledge that no one can be upset with me because I am 6. The title Happy Birthday, Jesus! is very tongue-in-cheek, but very sincere.
You have said that you feel fascination and adoration for Christmas. Why do you feel this way? What makes you feel so attracted to this festivity?
I think I’m into Christmas because I’ve never really had it. I wasn’t in touch with any of my extended family relatives as a child, so I had no grandparents, cousins, or aunts and uncles. Christmas was either a very forced, insular affair where we (my immediate family) very tensely tried to tolerate one another in the house all day. Otherwise, it was experienced as an addendum, shipped out or taken in by godparents/family friends/university pals/landladies (love you Di).
I think I’m into Christmas because I’ve never really had it. I wasn’t in touch with any of my extended family relatives as a child, so I had no grandparents, cousins, or aunts and uncles. Christmas was either a very forced, insular affair where we (my immediate family) very tensely tried to tolerate one another in the house all day. Otherwise, it was experienced as an addendum, shipped out or taken in by godparents/family friends/university pals/landladies (love you Di).
Although the scenes represented are festive and part of happy family moments, there’s some kind of obscurity in your paintings. Is it on purpose?
Yes, of course it is. When I paint, I think of my favourite poem by Anne Sexton, Wanting to Die:

raging at the fruit, a pumped-up moon,
leaving the bread they mistook for a kiss,

leaving the page of the book carelessly open,
something unsaid, the phone off the hook
and the love, whatever it was, an infection.

I know it’s an incredibly morbid poem (which you can hear here). Those images are so beautiful, it’s only with the context of the rest of the poem that they rot from within. Like a time-lapse video of a bowl of fruit. A painting should be a discussion, not a lecture. Even though I paint figuratively, I’m not just presenting the picture I work from. I want to shift it so that by ‘copying’ I can show you a bit of the world as I see it.
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Milnerton Market Fever Dream, 2019
The scenes were part of your imagination or did you get inspired by something? What were your references for this series?
I don’t want to be too discursive about the exact ‘when and where’ of each painting. If I become really famous, I want to be like Andy Warhol, I want to wear a bad wig and only respond to interviews with only ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If I went deep into my process, what would stop the public from saving themselves a bit of money and googling ‘tense domestic situation good lighting vintage seventies glamour’?
I want to talk about your paintings’ titles, which to me stand out a lot. I particularly laughed at Sateen Annunciation (Kennedy Christmas). Your philosophy is paint now, ask questions later. But with your originality, I couldn’t stop myself from asking how do you name your paintings. Do the titles and each painting form an unbreakable unit? Or each one has its own independent meaning?
Some of them have a story, some are self-contained. My Edward Hopper paintings are a little story; I feel those paintings talk to each other even though their source material is totally unrelated. The titles are the viewer’s springboard to look at my work in the right way. Not to be prescriptive, but a left-of-centre viewpoint is all that stands between my work and shabby chic. I like to think that if someone encounters my work with this title, this strange decontextualized image, now they need to solve the Rubik’s cube and shout ‘Jumanji’. If my strategy is successful, I think it means that my work is more accessible to people and functions more effectively as a piece of art, as opposed to being my art therapy that went too far.
The humour of the titles reminds me of memes and Internet culture. How have Twitter, Instagram or Facebook informed your work?
Well, I love the Internet culture and partake of it as often as I can. Besides being a really wonderful stream of revenue, I think it provides a platform where I can communicate directly to people who like my work. I love making friends on the Internet. I was talking about my art being accessible – I think being available outside of the codified experience of a gallery gives artists and art lovers a greater scope to interact with one another. But I don't think galleries are unnecessary. Being able to mount an exhibition and display a coherent slab of thought is an important exercise. Both platforms complement each other well and artists have the opportunity to marry them very effectively.
Once again, going back to the slab of thought I carved, I think the downside of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter is that people (me) get too caught up in making work to please followers. It’s so tempting for one (me, I, the artist Fanie Buys) to just make things formulaically to get likes. It’s important for artists (me) to do this sort of thing (an exhibition) to develop their practice.
Me in Drag Thinking about Edward Hopper or Earlier at the Party, Before I Got Sad and Went to Sulk in the Kitchen and Think of Edward Hopper. These are some of the titles that reference the American painter you were just mentioning a bit earlier. What does he mean to you? Do you have other influences?
Edward Hopper means so much to me. His work has such a sense of narrative, or rather the promise of narrative. Everything is quiet, contained; something might happen, it may not. His paintings are always a clear sense of being in the present moment. I grew up in a small town called George. It’s picturesque and conservative. In one of my (many) retail jobs, I remember sitting in a store window, looking at the lawn of my old primary school, and my boss saying, ‘this time every day you can hear the grass growing’. There’s something about being so incredibly bored for so long that really makes you look at the world around you.
When I look for inspiration, I like to see observed moments. Something recognisable but… not. I love Laura Ashley and Biggie Best catalogues, the interiors of Matisse, Vuillard, Wyeth. Sargent did a painting called The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, which I can look at for hours. These four young girls, almost all looking at you, and you know they know. I want to be those little girls so badly. The composition, the title, the light, each human figure has a totally different and realised character. Yes, it is a very good painting, I love it, very nice.
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The pink one is so terrify, 2019
The Obamas make an appearance in one of your paintings, titled I Made This Painting and Then Got a Heart Shaped Obama Keyring. Lady D, Rosalind Krauss or the Kennedy’s also are represented. It stood out to me how these famous people are sharing the starring role of the exhibition with anonymous people. Why is that so?
Lady D
Lady D
I’ve had my moment, thank you for humouring me. The reason I’ve mixed in celebrities with anonymous people is that, even more than people we know nothing about, celebrities are even more abstracted from personhood. They are the ultimate foil for us to project things on to. In this body of work, I employ the voyeurism reserved for the tabloid press and use it democratically to project my own thoughts, feelings, and experiences over a broad spectrum of people.
You use thick and quick brush strokes. Also, your colour palette is quite expressive. Does this aesthetic signify something specific? Does it create a type of approach to the starring roles of your paintings?
It’s about creating noise in the photographic sense. When one photostats a picture over and over again, it becomes distorted and, eventually, it is an abstract composition. I’m doing the same thing manually. My paintings are not as much artworks as they are fragments of a performance. Like a child faxing a picture from a magazine that they like to their nanny (which I did, it was an AIDS awareness poster; I couldn’t read, I just liked the ribbon). I’d like to move to a stage where my work is far less figurative.
And, of course, the Christmas dinner sculpture is kinda impressive. Why did you decide to incorporate a sculpture to the exhibition? How does it complement the paintings?
Kinda impressive. Thanks. Well, I want my work to be more than just paintings on the wall. I want it to be an experience that fully embodies the wonder of a child and the jadedness of a twenty-something homosexual. The sculpture is supposed to be hilarious and gross and beautiful. I wanted the pieces to look like paintings. Whilst making them, I was thinking about Melancholia, a work by Penny Siopis. I really like the seductiveness and repulsiveness of oil paint as food, of things masquerading as food but looking appetising. A lot of people say the sculptures make them hungry, which is great!
And because you are talking about Christmas… What do you want this Christmas? Have you behaved properly and will get lots of presents?
This is my worst thing. Firstly, I have been as good as gold this year. I’ve eaten all my vegetables and have shared my toys. Now, onto the next matter of business. I hate presents. No matter how nice or heartfelt the gift, my first thought is, ‘what do I get this person so that they won’t hold this over me, what can I do to make them feel guilty’. I am too self-conscious, however, if you think I deserve a little present, I’m happy to DM you my wishlist.
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The only thing more stressful than giving birth in a stable is being in a play dramatising said birth (also being 5), 2019
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Me in drag thinking about Edward Hopper, 2019
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Painting possessed by the zeitgeist of the ABBA divorce proceedings, 2019
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She’s Here. She has.... Arrived, 2019
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Mixed feelings artwork in Green, 2019
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Joyful Painting (Princess Diana with One Eye, an Unintentionally Meaningful Gesture), 2019
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Sateen Annunciation (Kennedy Christmas), 2019
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I made this painting and then got a heart shaped Obama Keyring, 2019
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Painting Made to Inspire the Writings of Stephen King, 2019
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Possibly Malevolent Painting, 2019
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Look if this painting doesn’t speak for itself then you need to ask yourself what you’re doing here, 2019
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A Painting to Explain my Understanding of Emotional Labour, 2019
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Sometimes Symbols have Meaning (Knitting Patterns, Precognition, and Huis Genoot), 2019
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Earlier at the party, before I got sad and went to sulk in the kitchen and think of Edward Hopper, 2019
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The seven habits of highly effective people, 2019