A Q&A with Yiull Damaso

With a long, thick, black moustache which curls at the edges, Yiull Damaso looks like Salvador Dali. He drives a customised Vespa and has a painting of Nelson Mandela which has been defined at “the most offensive painting ever made.” Needless to say, Yiull Damaso is far from your run-of-the-mill artist. Yiull has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, CNN and BBC. It goes without saying that despite, or perhaps because of, his position as such a daring artist, Yiull has made his mark on the art world. We chatted with Yiull to find out a little more about his upbringing, his journey into the art world and what a perfect day looks like to him.

Did you grow up in an artistic environment and was art always on the cards for you with regards to a career choice?
I was born in Zimbabwe and then moved to South Africa at 12 years of age. 35 years ago in South Africa the perception of art was that it wasn’t of the utmost importance in a successful society, and so my environment outside my home was not artistic. However, my family home was filled with my Grandfathers art (Felice Colombo- Torino, Italy) and my parents would take my sister and I to museums and galleries when they could. Art was not always on the cards as a career choice for me, so much so that I stopped it at school level in Std 7, I was 13 years old and did not study it after school either. I have had no formal training…

How would you describe your artistic style to someone who was blindfolded and couldn’t see?
That’s a difficult one to answer as each person’s perception of art varies so much that what is beautiful to one is not to another. I would try and convince them that my work is inspiring, meaningful and portrayed in the most beautiful way I could with my limited skills! I would use music while describing to them the varying styles of my work. Music is integral to my process; it is on consistently in the studio.

What mediums do you work in?
I work in a few mediums. Mostly oil on canvas and a technique that I developed of iron and copper rust on canvas. Here I use iron or copper powder suspended in two kinds of acrylic mediums, I then wash them in their respective acids that activates the rust or patina process. I also work in ink and mixed media, especially with regards to sculptures or found objects that I repurpose.

Do you follow a specific artistic process when you begin a new piece?
As I am untrained, I still catch myself making novice mistakes every so often when beginning new works. I do contemplate any new piece in my mind, quite extensively and generally have a finished product in my head before I start. Sometimes there can be quite a lot of maths and science to a new project that if thought of and figured out beforehand correctly can make the working process glide along quite smoothly.

To date, what has been your proudest moment as an artist?
Currently the sale of a big work last year for just under half a million Rands is hard to beat, but there are a few moments that have made me smile proudly. One of the most prominent ones is a fellow artist who runs a little studio and gallery in Alex (the first registered gallery in Alex) and attributes his journey as an artist to having been brought to meet me at my studio when he was a young boy by his Aunt. He was a little boy at the time, but I treated him as an equal. We had a long chat in my studio about art, the how’s and why’s and I gave him some art materials to try when he went home. I gave him something else, time, one of the best things in my opinion you can give. He surprised me with a visit years later and explained to me how our meeting impacted his life decisions. After that day in my studio as a young boy he decided then and there that he would be an artist, he is recognised by his community as an innovator and contributes to society with art lessons for many children in Alex and other schools in Johannesburg as well as a venue for other artists to showcase their work. He’s an amazing young man and it gives me pride to be told that I had a role in his journey, his name is Mxolisi Mbonjwa.

How would you describe yourself as a person, art aside?
I would like to believe that I am a caring, loving, passionate and fun-loving person. Hopefully easy to get along with, friendly and happy go lucky (this last quality is hard to keep as you get older though)

If you had to pick a favourite subject to paint, who/what would it be?
My favourite subject to paint is surrealism, where science doesn’t always make sense and your imagination can run freely. It would need to include the female form and that life-giving force, water. What I like about surrealism is it takes you on a dreamlike journey of what came before and after the image you are seeing.

Could you please tell us about your artistic training?
I mentioned in the beginning the fact that I have had no artistic training having stopped it at school at 13 years of age. After school I did studied Architecture for 4 years but did not find it fulfilling. I then decided to go to Italy and see if my Grandfather would take me under his wing, unfortunately he was in hospital dying when I got there. Around this time, after spending 6 months in London I hitchhiked from London to Torino, Italy to visit my Grandmother. I stopped in a town in Southern France, Toulon, there was a world sculpturing competition running at their waterfront. I stood there watching about ten artists working on their respective blocks of Carrara marble, while spectators sipped on coffee at the café’s and the rich floated on their superyachts in the Mediterranean. At some point I realised that I had been standing there for hours watching them with only one espresso to sip on made available to me from my small pocket of change. It was there and then that I decided to pursue art as my career. I returned to South Africa and would give my sales pitch to anyone that would listen, eventually someone did, and I received my first commission, followed by another and another…

Please talk us through your perfect day – from when you wakeup until you go to bed.
A perfect day would start waking up living next to the ocean and having a swim (I love the water), then a walk, run or some form of exercise or physical exertion! Then it would be time for a coffee and or breakfast at a café. Being around people does feed me, I need a people fix daily. Then it would be studio time for a few hours, creating and listening to music. If possible, a sunset swim or walk followed by a meal, preferably prepared by me with loved ones and friends. We then sit together like a big family on a long table and enjoy life.

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