Brooklyn, New York-based South African artist Louis de Villiers’s show Sacred Currencies, examines the associative status and cultural value of what he refers to as the “hieroglyphics of success”: luxury brands and icons which become indicators of success, wealth and social belonging. Gary Cotterell chats to the “post-internet soutie”, formerly known as Skullboy, about the relevance of his work and his formative years growing up in Durban.
How would you describe yourself? A Durban-bred artist and designer currently based in New York. The post-internet soutie with one foot in South Africa, the other in America and the third dipped in Yves Saint Laurent blue.
Why did you choose to drop the “Skullboy” moniker and what, if any, is the difference in your practice then and now? Skullboy was the moniker I painted under from 2006 to 2017 and was ultimately the guise under which I explored and developed the first 10 years of my “adult” craft. Skullboy was a device with which I could explore a number of styles and marks without having to necessarily take ownership of the outcomes. He was a handy little scapegoat that I could lump all my mistakes and failed attempts on without repercussion. Having developed my mark and style over those 10-plus years, I felt I was finally at a stage where I had found a voice unique and considered enough to claim as my own – to finally choose the road I wanted to pursue for the rest of my career.
In your profile, you are described as artist and “instigator”. Explain? Starting out in the burgeoning Durban scene, you quickly learnt that if you wanted anything done, you generally had to do it yourself. So, over time, I’ve thrown parties, put on exhibitions, facilitated events and hosted out-of-town artists and creatives, contributing to a scene that did so much to shape me. Whatever I do, I aim to inspire a knock-on effect.
How would you describe your work and where do you find your inspiration? The very core of my practice is ultimately mark-making – whether in cross-hatch form or the abstract line, it’s all about creating a visual wall of noise for the viewer to lean into. These marks play out in figurative illustrations of a remote, jungle-bound society that I use as tools and metaphors to explore topics I find interesting in this global post-internet society. My own background often sparks these trains of thought but I mostly explore social media and cellphone culture, and furthermore, how that culture has established new standards of worth, cultural currency and accumulative aspiration.
Your technique appears to take its cue from street art/graffiti. With fellow Durbanite Kylie Wentzel in the room, I’m reminded of a couple of artists from eThekwini who have an illustrative approach to their art. While all are unique, do you think there is a Durban “language”? Definitely! I’m not sure if it's the schools we come out of, the culture set before us or the strong visuals we grow up seeing on taxis, buses, salons and bars but Durban creatives definitely lean more towards the “illustrative” side of the visual arts. There's also a looseness and an honesty that is evident in the work.
Did Durban have a big influence on your style and subject matter? Maybe not necessarily my style but the way I grew up in Durban is definitely the foundation informing what I'm curious about and how that influences my subject matter. I was 28 when I moved to the US, and got my first smartphone and pair of Nikes, and to be from middle-class Durban, dumped into such a highly connected, fast-paced, capitalistic place as New York, it piqued my interest in how stark the differences are. The way we quantify success, project status through our appearance and, ultimately, build values is so different to my background, years ago, and I'm fascinated as to how online Western culture now comes to shape the global medium of success.
Explain the title of your current show Sacred Currency. Sacred Currency aims to explore how icons, language and learnt behavior can all act as nuanced indicators of success, wealth and social belonging. The proliferation of luxury brands and logos creates a vocabulary of icons that associate the user to status and success by virtue of the icon's monetary and cultural value. The irony therein is that these “hieroglyphics of success” generally will only be read and valued by people who buy into the same value system. If you're flexing Gucci for someone who doesn't know the G, would they lift you on their shoulders?
Is there a re-occurring theme, icon or symbol in your work? Yes, apart from my palette (black, grey and white 2011 to 2018 and Blue Phase 2019 to present), I've been obscuring my subjects’ faces with “ID masks” - two circular eyes and an oblong mouth, generally executed with gold leaf. In my Skullboy years, I painted these amorphous, evil characters that sat alongside all my subjects. These characters came to represent my subjects’ ID – all our shortcomings and ills manifested by what we crave, embodied by an ever-present partner. These, again, were a dissociation device where I could paint the subjects as victims of their true selves, not the masters. So, the combining of the subject and the ID is ultimately myself and my subjects taking responsibility for who we are.
What is the relevance of the The Doors of Perception quote on your Kalashnikovv Gallery profile? It speaks to the irony in the topics I deal with in my work – how social media has expanded our communities and social circles massively, creating this ever-increasing bank of information and shared experience. Our whole online and real lives are designed to find belonging and connection but we will never truly find it. We are too complex and diverse to truly have a shared experience or moment.
• Sacred Currencies runs until January 18 at Kalashnikovv Gallery, 70 Juta St, Johannesburg. Tel 073 124-8183.