Kerr Houston interviews Ricky Lee Gordon

Over the past few years, Ricky Lee Gordon has become one of the most visible figures in what is sometimes called global muralism. Working as Freddy Sam, he has painted walls in several American cities (including Baltimore and Philadelphia), Nepal, the Gambia, and South Africa – where he recently completed two ten-story compositions on the sides of a Johannesburg apartment building. He is also the founder of A Word of Art, a Cape Town exhibition space, and co-directs Colour Ikamva, which facilitates the physical transformation of under-resourced South African schools.

Kerr Houston sat down to talk with Ricky Lee in his new office in Cape Town’s City Hall on July 18, which happened to be Nelson Mandela Day.


Kerr Houston: I’d like to start with your work as Freddy Sam, because that’s how I, and I think much of Baltimore, came to know of you in 2012, when you were there in conjunction with the Open Walls project. What, two years on, do you remember of that project?

Ricky Lee Gordon: I really loved that project. I remember saying while I was there that my best experience was the fact that I was on that street corner for a week, and I got to see Baltimore pass me by. As a tourist, you don’t get to experience a place like you do as a painter – meaning, I get to sit on one spot for a week and just see… So I got to feel Baltimore, which I really loved, and I got to meet people, and people were super friendly – like, the local coffee shop guy would come give me a coffee. That was a really big experience for me: probably the biggest wall I’d painted overseas at the time, and it did a lot for me personally, as well as getting my name out there. But I think the experience as a project was one of the best I’ve been involved in.

KH: That mural includes a focus on [Cape Town’s] Table Mountain, and an image of an African elephant. Natural motifs recur in a lot of your mural paintings. I wonder what the representation of nature in an urban setting means to you.

RLG: Yeah, coming from South Africa, I grew up going to national parks and seeing animals quite often, and I still do go, and I love it, and I love nature. I think I want to create artwork that people enjoy, people like. I don’t want to comment too much (I do have my own personal work that comments on society, or has an emotion behind it) and when being invited to such a big project and painting in such a public space, I just like to bring a piece of home. So nature is just an instinctual, first reaction, and then Table Mountain was the representation of home. And also I remember Martha Cooper, the photographer who’s from Baltimore: I said to her, what do you think of an elephant, and she was like, yeah, I’ve got a photo of elephants walking down the street when they came for the circus. So I thought, cool, then we’ll just paint a giant African elephant walking down Charles Street.

KH: And that mural also features the crown that turns up in a lot of your work. I read in one interview that you saw that as an evocation of childhood imagination. Could you say a little more about that?

RLG: Yeah. When working with kids, and you just ask them to free draw, just draw as they like, the crown pops up quite a lot. And also if you ask kids to just play, and make believe, kings and queens come up a lot, as well. And it’s a sense that, like, as a kid you don’t see anyone bigger or better than you, or less than you; everybody’s a king and queen. It’s this childhood naïveté that’s, like, actually, quite right: how special we all are, and the potential in all of us. And that’s just something I believe in creativity and something I believe in life and the crown is a symbol for me of that. And it’s also a reminder of the Peter Pan theory: if you forget how to fly, you can’t fly. If you believe you can fly, you can fly. It’s quite simple.

KH: That crown reminds me of Basquiat, and you’ve mentioned Basquiat as an influence.

RLG: In the beginning when I first started to move away from graffiti and looked at contemporary art I absolutely loved Basquiat, and I was very influenced, but the crown’s not a connection to him, even though people ask. I also do think that he maybe did it – I don’t know; in graffiti they do the crown – because of the same kind of thinking. But I don’t know.

KH: Are there other artists – contemporary artists, or street artists – that you would cite as influences?

RLG: Yeah, a couple of years ago I would definitely say lots of influences. But now I’m trying to just focus within, and stay away from influences because the hardest part of what I’m doing is just finding my own style, and I found like I haven’t found it, because of all the influences. But I’m really influenced, if I had to say one thing, is the current movement of muralism, where… there’s a new kind of energy in muralism, where street artists and graffiti artists and just normal painters have taken to walls, and put a lot of effort into the walls that they are they’re painting, and they have a subject matter, and a narrative, and a theme: just the high level of quality in large-scale murals, and mural festivals popping up. So you can go onto a website these days – I go on every day – and see five new artworks that are inspiring me, and all unique in style.

KH: You’ve certainly been a very active participant lately in that movement: Rochester, Philly, Atlanta, Joburg. Do you see any common thread between those cities?

RLG: Common thread – I don’t know; they’re all unique. I’m just really lucky to have been going to different cities to paint; as I said, when you get to paint in a place you really get to see the underlying energy of a place on the street level. But I could definitely see Rochester and Atlanta as being completely different, and being a huge eye-opener for me, being able to travel to different states.

KH: Maybe I could turn the question on its head, then. When you arrive in a new city, how do you go about planning your project in relation to that specific environment, and that specific public?

RLG: Sure. Overseas, it’s quite difficult because you can’t immerse yourself too much, to read the place and get a lot of information. I definitely have a skeleton sketch and an idea but then I go and I see the environment, and see who’s there, and see if it’s a suitable context. But here in South Africa I spend more time with context and placement of what I’m painting and where I’m painting. It’s just hard to do that overseas, because everything’s planned out.


KH: Could you say a little bit in that regard about the Johannesburg murals? They’re immense paintings. Describe the process by which you were involved in that – and then how did you plan the subjects and execute?

RLG: The Johannesburg one is a double-sided wall. Just after Nelson Mandela’s passing I got a phone call from a property developer there, who said he wants to pay tribute, he wants to do something big, and sent me a photograph of the wall. And I had to start just two days later, and the plan was to be finished by the day of his funeral, which was four days later.

KH: Wow.

RLG: Yeah. It’s the biggest wall I’ve ever done, so it’s all in the planning. We got permission from the Nelson Mandela foundation to use the photograph [by Bob Gosani, of Mandela boxing]; I chose that image also because it’s really close to where Nelson Mandela actually used to train, on the rooftops – and it also just fits perfectly, and I love that image. And then I painted it, and it was really an amazing experience. I had to paint from reference and then come down every few hours, just to check.


KH: So you weren’t projecting?

RLG: I projected the original sketch. And then the funny story is when I came down at the very end, and I was just checking the sketch, a woman said, Who’s that? And I was like, seriously? That’s Nelson Mandela. And she said, No, that’s not Madiba; you’ve got to fix that. And then I fixed it. And then it was really well received by the public and the local community, and the property developer invited me back to paint the other side. And that’s when I came up with the idea for the springbok drinking from the river, with his reflection: the springbok representing South Africa – that’s our national animal, and I paint the springbok a lot – and the reflection representing our past and present and future, and the drinking being like our, ubuntu.

The message with the first one was I am because we are; Nelson Mandela’s definition of ubuntu is You can’t be human alone. And that’s where that reflection plays in; it’s not about being human, it’s also about past and present, and about looking at what was happening during apartheid compared to the reality of South Africa now. There’s a huge divide; the underlying problems are so big, and it’s really bad. It’s worse than we admit to. Today is Nelson Mandela Day, and everybody’s calling the radio… everybody’s doing something today, but everyone’s phoning the radio to tell them what they’re doing, and then taking photos of themselves at the soup kitchen, hugging the homeless, and, it’s like, people should do it every month. People should start reflecting, and being honest, and stop complaining about the past, and actually start complaining more about the present – or not complain, but do something about it.

KH: Do you see your work, then, as a sort of public service?

RLG: I would like my work not to be a public service, but to do something more than just what it can do for me. Anything I would want to do: it’s ubuntu, it needs to be community. If you give, it just comes around. I don’t know how my work does do for others, but I think the main thing is being a traveler, and being open, and learning and meeting people on a humanistic level. And that’s where painting on the street teaches you, it humbles you. Because we’re not that way; we’ve learned to divide ourselves, we’ve learned to build walls. And so just going into the street is a start… [and] my main question is, Do the people who are exposed to it enjoy it? I don’t want to do anything that’s jarring or of personal interest.

KH: Could we think a little more about that notion of community? As you’ve tackled increasingly ambitious projects, it seems to me you have to triangulate between the expectations of the developer, the local city council, your own goals as an artist, and then the local population. How do you reconcile those, or is that not a problem?

RLG: Nature helps: painting nature. The city’s always going to have a problem, so you just have to communicate professionally with them. The community always is really accepting and receptive, if you approach, and say, Hi, I’m here; this is what I’m planning on doing. Some artists don’t do that; they just go and do it, because the guy that owns the wall said yes. But that doesn’t mean the neighbor, you know. And if you just have that conversation, you’ll find that you even if they would say they don’t like the artwork, you can explain the artwork, and then they love the artwork; it’s just communication.

Cape Town, 2014

Cape Town, 2014

KH: When you and other were working over in Woodstock in 2011, were you working with the community in that way?

RLG: Ja, like, that’s a sore thumb for me. I had really good intentions for what could be there: murals in the community to uplift the environment physically, because it was really run down, and the area has really become gentrified. It’s not just because of the murals, but the murals obviously help.

KH: It’s a common story.

RLG: It’s a common story. Property developer paints murals; street corner looks cleaner. But it’s just one part of it, and at the end of the day it’s the property developers that are at the top of the pillar. But now there’s like mural tours there, and the community’s not included, and I’m not there anymore; I can’t afford my studio anymore… We used to do some work with the kids, and we had plans to do it every Saturday, to make it something special, and to make the community benefit – but I don’t see how the community’s benefitted. It’s just a slow eviction.

KH: What makes, in your view, a really successful mural?

RLG: Hm. There’s so many different layers. For me, the greatest thing is… in your heart, and it brings up some emotion. I’ve had that before, where someone says this reminds them of a certain time they were given courage or strength. People create their own symbols from the artwork, and that’s really important. And it takes it away from you, because you’re an artist, you’re always in that mode of creating and making and doing, and you don’t see the beauty of one thing, like one symbol, for someone who’s going about their day and then all of a sudden that symbol just jars everything and breaks and opens something for them that’s really powerful. So that’s successful – but it’s not aiming to do that. For me it’s just better than what everything else looks like. I think just adding something into public space is success: like adding your contribution, and saying, why does it have to be straight roads and gray walls?

KH: I’ve focused so far on your murals, but obviously you’ve got other projects, as well. Can you say a few words about them?

RLG: Yeah. The murals led me to doing community projects, and then partnering up with my girlfriend Megan [King], who’s really passionate about education as the number one thing we can be doing. And I know nothing about education, but I know that a mural in a school would be beautiful. And so we focused our efforts on school re-imagination projects: so it’s not just about painting murals but re-imagining the environment with the kids, and asking them what they want to see, and what their imaginations bring out, and then facilitating their creativity to aid in the transformation of the school environment. And then, through the facilitation, introducing them to the idea of creativity – not as something new, but saying, See, you are all creative the whole time; creativity is just an emotion, and creativity helps with so many things.

Zambia 2014

Zambia, 2014

KH: Could you give a concrete example?

RLG: Asking what the school should be is not that literal; it’s just including them in the plan. We do steer the design aesthetic. It’s more about them being the ones to do it. So we have a skeleton design, but the result is basically ten kids’ abstract drawings, then created into a pattern, then cut up large and laid out, so it looked nice… So we’re new, we’re only a year old, and we’re not calling ourselves a program or a project because we don’t claim to know what we’re doing [laughs]: we want to investigate what we’re doing. And we want to pilot, and refine, so we can do it in the most impactful way for the kids and the school, and in such a way that we can create a model so that it can be used for other people.

KH: You also ran A Word of Art, and over the years you hosted a number of artists in residence. What was that experience like?

RLG: That was the best; that was like the time of my life. I always say that creativity is like when you’re kids; it’s the best metaphor. It’s better to play together than on your own; you can create more of a story, you can go further. And that was the residency. I don’t know if I was scared to go pursuing an artist myself, I was more interested in facilitating other artists and doing my stuff on the side. So I was always a manager, I was always a producer, always an organizer, and never a frustrated artist, because I was also doing my stuff, and I was always learning. And then starting the international residency was than times ten, because you have incredible artists coming here and then the thing is that Cape Town was so foreign to them: when they came here, they erupted, they just blossomed… And then a month goes by, and then the next artist arrives… And so it really put A Word of Art on the map, because of all the work they were doing. And it was also just extremely fun.

KH: I did want to ask about Gaia. You’ve collaborated with him several times now. How would you characterize that relationship?

RLG: When I met him, I hated him [laughs]. I didn’t hate him; I was such a big fan. When I met him, I was so surprised, because I was such a big fan for so many years, and when I met him, it was not who I thought. He was so young, and he’s full of energy, and he’s just all over the place, and I was just like… I stayed with him in Atlanta, and he just wouldn’t keep it down; he’d come home at around 2 a.m., and I was like, Look, man, I don’t mean to be the grandpa of the bunch, but we’ve got to work. He’s an instigator; he’s so smart, and he knew what this was before we all did. He knew this movement was coming; he just has so much context. And then I got to know him, and I realized how smart he was, how talented he was – he can paint anything.

But he chooses to be a traveler, a sponge, to know as much as possible. And to give him credit, as soon as he arrived in South Africa, he was asking me questions about our history and our government, and answering them in the same breath… He’s great. He’s a master already, at such a young age: a master in the pursuit of art history… So I’m really interested in this global muralism movement. He’s done it in a very smart way. I don’t know how, but every mural he does is full of interesting context from the place, and then it goes, and it cross-references this, and it does this, and it does something: he’s trying to do something. He’s pushing it, he’s saying something. You can’t just paint pretty flowers. You can do that, but that’s just a community mural, where you get everyone together… A mural should also, like, jar society a little bit. It shouldn’t be about making beauty.

KH: Last question: what’s on the near horizon? What’s coming up?

RLG: Just moved into this new studio in City Hall. I’ve had studios over the years, but never had the time to just paint, so I’m going to focus on my painting and figure out what I have to say. I just want to work. Because the thing about painting a mural is that it’s like, okay, shit, you’ve got to paint a mural on Monday, what am I going to do, and I quickly put my design together, and it’s done, and it’s finished and you can’t just let it sit, and see where to fix it.

I want to refine what I’m painting; I want to figure out what I want when I’m painting. So I need to slow down, and focus on the school projects, and really be present, because the last few years I’ve been just working really hard and pushing it from all different angles and behind the laptop and then on the ground, and I don’t think doing anything really well, just doing a lot of different things. And I want to focus on the school project, Colour Ikamva, and my own painting. So that when I do come and paint with the kids, I’m present, my energy’s there, my creativity’s there, I’m not just preaching it.

KH: I wish you the best.

RLG: Thanks.

Author Kerr Houston teaches art history and art criticism at MICA; he is also the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2013) and recent essays on Wafaa Bilal, Emily Jacir, and Candice Breitz.