There is no doubt that Ricky Lee Gordon is one of the most inspirational, passionate, and socially aware artists working today. If you could bottle-up and distribute Ricky’s qualities, the world would definitely be a better place, this is because Ricky doesn’t just paint walls for the fun of it (although it does look like a lot of fun), neither does he only organise projects as annual events, he is unwavering in his commitment to make his community better, brighter, and more hopeful. Through every mural he designs, and with every colour he chooses and brush stroke he makes, he thinks and cares about the residents behind the walls and what they want.
In this email Q&A I ask Ricky to tell me a bit more about Write on Africa:
What is Write on Africa? The idea is to inspire ourselves to inspire each other, to inspire the change we wish to see in our community.
Write on Africa creates art in public space for inspiration and social change; we also facilitate community murals, workshops and creatively consult with other community programs and NGO’S.
How did the idea originate and what is the philosophy behind it? Founded In 2006 in Johannesburg, I set it up as an initiative to promote graffiti art as positive and legitimate art form.
The first project was to organize South Africa’s best artist to collaborate on the first ever legal (council endorsed) large scale graffiti mural. The press was invited and the next thing we knew we were in almost every newspaper, magazine and TV program that was invited.
The idea was to educate people that graffiti (unlike the broken window theory says) does not create crime, and in South Africa we could use this art form for positive change and urban renewal.
Through this exposure, Write on Africa and these artists were in demand for commercial work for big brands; I then ended-up becoming an agent booking work for artists.
After 3 years of this, I had learned a lot, gained professional experience and made many good contacts within the industry, however I was never happy with the role I had found myself in – as I too am an artist, I craved to paint rather then manage, also the clients become demanding and it was always work work work, with no creative outlet.
Three years later I ended the company and moved to Cape Town, which I felt was one step closer to the rest of the world, I started a new company called WORD OF ART with a partner who would take the role of manager/agent allowing me to be a creative director and focus on the philosophy and mission of both the commercial work and also of what would then become ‘Write on Africa’ not for profit art initiative, meaning we would volunteer our services to those who could do with a workshop or mural. We would challenge our corporate clients to sponsor our initiatives.
2 years after this we grew into a very successful agency, and I was now directing campaigns, I however was still not fulfilled as I was simply helping brands sell products, through creative art marketing campaigns, and so me and my partner dissolved the company and I set up a gallery called A WORD OF ART,
WORD OF ART moved into the Woodstock Industrial Building, over 2 years ago, and since then I have working with the Landlord Elad to form a community of creativity. This 60 year old industrial building situated in the heart of Woodstock – Cape Town’s emerging creative precinct – is now the home to a diverse mix of artists, designers and photographers, alongside factory’s carpenters and bakeries. The building aims to support artist’s needs and help toward the development of the Woodstock area, and a creative Cape Town.
At the end of last year “a word of art” had been running for almost one year with great success. I got to create the projects I believed in and for the sake of art not branding. This year I decided to focus almost all my energy into making Write on Africa a sustainable social enterprise.
I want to show companies how do to good things and show them they can still do good business, as companies are used to simply donating funds and not really getting behind a good cause, the idea is to get them to give us money, infrastructure, and their time, from both their marketing and corporate social investment budgets. We want to show them that we make doing good “cool” which will lead to good press and will inspire other companies to follow suite.
Charity doesn’t need to be a obligation, “gifting” and service to humanity should inspiring, and so we use colour and creativity to make this happen!
There is so much work to be done here in South Africa and we represent the new gentrification, not only do we want to make the change here, but we want to get the world to be inspired by our country and beautiful continent.
There is something very magical about Africa, I believe that not only will we one day feed the world with natural resources but we will feed the soul of the world with culture and a sense of community.
Can you tell us about some of your past projects? We have run many workshops in the townships of Cape Town, sponsored and executed countless mural campaigns, created strategic creative and colourful marketing strategies for wonderful like minded initiatives, like Greenpop who set out to plant 1000 trees in one month – we gave them the creative tools to get their name out there in a big way.
We have also taken our “love” on road trips to rural communities and painted for the unsuspecting public as part of our interest in discovering the core effects colour and art can have on an environment.
What has been the reaction to your work by other artists, and the communities at large? As our mission states we inspire ourselves to inspire each other to inspire change!
I believe that painting a mural is like making love visible, giving a symbol of change to the community, we don’t just go and hang up a picture, we engage in the community and spend time working on the streets and the community appreciates us for being there and taking the time to listen and talk, and really this is the best gift: love equality and respect for one another.
We now get so many requests from artists and students, wanting to join our projects, I think people have had enough of this ‘ego driven selfish artist’ cliché we have become so used to in the media.
You can do what you love and you can change the world!
Can you tell us about the process: how do you decide on what ideas you want to take forward and develop? If we had it our way we would paint an entire community or school inside and outside, we would also fill a bus with artists and drive from Cape Town to Egypt painting along the way, (that will happen one day ) but for now its really an up hill battle for us raising funds, so our ideas need to be simple, and usually the projects that happen seem to find us. But this year were knocking on doors, which we have never done so we will see. We believe in what we do and we want other people to help us envision the infinite potential Write on Africa has.
How involved are the local communities? We like to involve the communities in the dialogue of an approaching mural, the mural is for them and their say is important, however we don’t want to necessarily ask them what they want us to paint, otherwise we would be painting a lot without any expression, so we talk a lot with the community and let this inspire the artwork, and almost all the time the community was before we even started painting, just the idea that someone cares make all the difference.
Have people / communities ever approached you about projects? All the time. We get requests and it’s really sad how many people we have turned down as we are not in financial position to help. We hope that one day we can help everyone that asks for a mural, we have enough volunteer artists on hand and enough grey walls in need but not enough financial support….yet!
Do you ever return and talk to the locals about the effect of the artwork? YES, and it’s amazing, they never forget you. You realize how much we take art for granted, we are so immersed in it, and when you take it to a place where there is none, it creates an explosion of excitement and inspiration that continues to effect change on a daily basis.
I live in this building here with the studio and gallery and so I paint often in the surrounding area that is very poor, but through this regular action I have see how people really feel about my work and it’s a super feeling! My work/style is evolving as the community is influencing me and I am embracing it.
One of the things we are really interested in doing is creating and documenting a case study over time of how mural art can effect social change, because I can believe and see the change but I now want to prove it!
Do artists from other countries want to get involved and create their own models of your concept? Yes, this is best part of it all; we are now realizing there is a global community of creative change makers. And we are getting mail form all over the world, and this is our dream – to host artists here in Cape Town to participate in our projects and go home with a real story and reflection of the situation in Africa, not what they see in the media.
BY HELEN SOTERIOU