Percy Maimela: the artist who draws portraits in salt

By Emilie Gambade & Malibongwe Tyilo 12 September 2019

Percy Maimela in his studio at August House (Photo by Emilie Gambade)

Percy Maimela worked for years as a merchandiser, until one day he saw a dropped bag of salt on the floor, its contents dispersed on the ground. Where others would have seen a mess, he saw a blank canvas.

Video filmed & edited by Malibongwe Tyilo

It’s mid-afternoon in Johannesburg when we meet Percy Maimela, a young artist, in his studio in August House. He has just moved in, excited to finally be among his peers, other artists who have been using the space as their studio; but he is also in awe to be working in the very building that witnessed the rise of Nelson Makamo, Kudzanai Chiurai, Nicholas Hlobo and Mary Sibande. Maimela sees it as a good omen. 

“I moved here to learn more about the in-depth of the [art] business and learn more from people who are practising it, who are my peers…

“I’m definitely getting a lot of information that I didn’t know existed. Before I moved to August House, before I took art seriously, I didn’t know how a huge number of artists were making a living off their art,” he says.

August House was launched in 2008, several floors of ateliers, set in a 1940s building in downtown Jo’burg; its owners call it “an exclusive art building, housing more than 50 independent, pan-African contemporary artists, in private art studios, known to the locals as ‘The Artists’ Playground’”.

Maimela, who was born in Pretoria, says art has always been a part of his life.

“Me and art have been together forever… The thing is, I was never told that art could be a business. So, I was just doing art on the side, as a hobby; I was drawing.”

His life changed when, working as a merchandiser, he saw salt that had dispersed on the floor.

“Salt had spread on the floor. I played around with the salt and eventually something nice came out of it. The first thing I drew was a portrait. I love portraiture because of the expression on the face. So, I did the portrait of a guy with dreadlocks, and when I was busy doing that my colleagues came and they were like… ‘wow, this is nice!’ and then they called the manager and everyone was so excited.”

He resigned from his job as a merchandiser in 2015 and the following year began his journey as a full-time artist. The start wasn’t easy, especially for someone who had no formal training nor tips on how to market one’s work.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know anyone in the industry. I felt like the Titanic, I was, like, ‘sinking like the Titanic’. But then, I could see where I was going and I could see I needed to take a few punches before I could make it. 

Today, Maimela is mainly known as a salt artist, drawing portraits of celebrities or passers-by, capturing their expressions with thousands of tiny white grains. The images make for a mesmerising sight, black and white portraits that, before they are sprayed with glue, could disappear with a simple breeze.  But he’s got other mediums as well: he uses charcoal and touches of colours to draw images of people wearing masks, an analogy for humans’ tendency to play with identities.

Although he believes he still has much to learn and his personal style still feels hesitant, art – as a profession and a reason for living – is evident in his conversation.  

“Imagine a world where there’s no picture, where there’s no colour, where it’s only black and white, and where there are no flowers… There’s no stories to tell. Art brings life to [everything], art breathes life into whoever receives the art. If you read a book, you get an emotional link, if you see a beautiful picture, you get in touch with your inner self.”

Now, Maimela is embracing another challenge. On 12 September, he will attempt to get a Guinness World Record title for the largest coffee grounds mosaic – one of South African DJ and musician Black Coffee.

“Before I start working on an artwork, I visualise it. I need to tell a story. I always wanted to do a portrait of Black Coffee… But I don’t know why I never did – maybe today happened so that I could finally produce his portrait. And the [irony] is that the company I was merchandising at, their main product was coffee”. 

The project came to be after Dean Carlson, founder and CEO of BrainFarm, a South African event agency and speaker bureau, met Maimela. Carlson, who was behind the Discovery Invest Leadership Summit, is now launching Sound Idea Sessions, a day of thought-leadership and music. This year, the event brings together US speaker, author and marketing disruptor Ryan Holiday and… Black Coffee.

If they succeed, they’ll join a list of incredible South African record-breakers that includes South African gymnast Zama Mofokeng who holds “the most consecutive back handsprings, 34, on one hand”; Fair Cape Dairies, that created, in 2010, the largest pot of yoghurt at 1.38m tall (it contained 514 litres of rooibos yoghurt); the busiest morgue in the world, a record South Africa sadly broke in 1998; and the smallest living ostrich (South Africa has held that record since 2011), to name but a few.

Guinness World Records was the brainchild of English-South African engineer Sir Hugh Beaver, and was born in 1955. It is said that Beaver was on a hunting trip in Ireland and unable to shoot golden plovers. As a justification, he suggested that the plover (a plump-breasted bird of the shorebird family Charadriidae) might well be the fastest bird on earth. The thing is: he didn’t know if that assumption was right and he couldn’t check his guess as no documentation or book held the answer.

He soon realised that there might be a need for a book that listed all the fastest, tallest, busiest, “bigliest” and other –est facts of the world and the Guinness Book of World Records was born.

The book was initially handed out for free in pubs as a tool to mend heated (and drunken) debates about facts. Four reprints later, an alleged 187,000 books had been sold that year and inspired some more record-breaking.

Today, Guinness World Records claims it receives about 1,000 applications a week, spanning from the longest barbecue marathon (braaiing a whopping 526 boerewors) to the most lipstick applications in one hour (by Pretoria-based Bertha Le roux-Wahl).

Breaking world records has also tickled the interest of some shadier entities; John Oliver, Last Week Tonight’s host, comedian and brilliant political-commentator, recently looked at Turkmenistan despot Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow’s obsession with breaking records. Turkmenistan, which is, according to Human Rights Watch, “one of the world’s most isolated and oppressively governed countries”, scores an impressive total of more than 10 world records, including: the city with the highest density of white marble (543 buildings made with 4,513,584m² of white marble), and the largest cycling awareness lesson (3,246 participants).

Apparently, 60% of Guinness World Records applications are rejected, but the ones that make it – and successfully score a record – get broad worldwide exposure.

Yet, the process isn’t all that simple or cheap: the waiting time for standard applications sent to the Guinness World Records is about 12 weeks; if you pay $800 (±R12,000) for existing titles, or $1,000 (±R15,000) for new titles, you can get your application on the fast line and get it reviewed in five days.

One of the requirements, says the Guinness World Records, is to have “determination, extraordinary skills and commitment”. Then, you’ll need to go through the list of already broken records (and see if you can beat any), or if you’re intent on setting one of your own, it will need to be measurable, verifiable, standardisable, based on one variable and… the best. 

As 12 September comes closer, and the pressure grows, Maimela says: “The big dream is not about me. We were born, or we learn certain skills that we can use to grow ourselves, to become fully us.

“It’s not about me, it’s about those who come after me. We leave a legacy of people who know themselves and who can grow themselves; who don’t wait for someone to hire them. It’s a cycle. That’s the big dream, to complete the cycle.” ML

Update – 12 September at 04:30pm: Percy Maimela was awarded the Guinness World Record title for the largest coffee grounds mosaic of South African DJ and musician, Black Coffee. The Guinness World Records™ adjudicators were on-site to certify the record. 




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