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In conversation with artist Steven ‘Joff’ Carter

Maverick Life


In conversation with artist Steven ‘Joff’ Carter

Artist Joff's paintings (From L to R): Long Red Rose/ Day Dreaming/ Echo. Images: Supplied

Ushering in the final month of 2021, Gqeberha-based visual artist, Steven ‘Joff’ Carter explores the often underestimated catharsis of conversation and its ability to remedy disconnection and aid in coping with hardship in his latest solo exhibition, ‘Conversations’.

A conversation is like a bridge into another person’s world and Gqberha-based visual artist Steven ‘Joff’ Carter has crossed many bridges and charted the worlds of people who are often seen as dwelling on the fringes of society in a bid to stoke humanity and rediscover commonality.

Joff grew up in Cape Town and studied visual effects and animation. “I initially applied to study architecture and mechanical engineering,” he says. I nod at the irony as we settle in his studio tucked away at the back of a boutique architecture firm located a few kilometres away from the mouth of Gqeberha’s historical Baakens River. The studio looks like the inside of a microwave if paint supplies had exploded in it.

The need to channel his insatiable appetite for life and its curiosities through creative outlets like music, film, and art have underscored Joff’s life for as long as he can remember.

“Art has always been part of my life. I have always liked to create.

“I started with ink drawings and this led to a lot of the forms I create today. I started painting with oils much later on in life,” Joff says, adding, “I think my style largely developed simply by virtue of experimenting and playing with different mediums and palettes; finding something that I liked and developing that more and more but my beginning with drawing had a huge hand in the style I paint in today”.

“Bless you”. by Joff. Image: Supplied
“Taste” by Joff. Image: Supplied

Joff is a self-taught visual artist and describes his artistic process very simply: he trusts his hand which is directed by emotion and feeling born from a moment, a film, a song, a conversation, to take his pen on an experimental journey around the paper.

While Joff hesitates to define his artistic style, reasoning that it is something he is constantly working to understand and develop, his work is arguably an experimental dance between the realms of surrealism and abstract expressionism. Much of his work notably exaggerates two parts of the body that are symbols pregnant with expression — the eyes and hands.

“I love playing with proportions. I like the intrigue created by taking something out of its ‘true’ form and the challenge of keeping that form comfortable enough for the eye. The hands and the eyes in my work are instruments of connection and storytelling. Eyes anchor connection, they anchor a story while hands animate the story. These features help people to relate to the painting in some way or another because that image is mirrored more accurately to the human form than the rest of the chaos”.


Over the last two years, an interval consumed by the Covid-19 pandemic and fraught with human disconnection, through lending an ear, Joff slowly landscaped space for those on the fringe of society to bear their untold stories and channelled them into over 23 soul-stirring yet unexpectedly comforting artworks including oil paintings, ink and charcoal drawings and sculpture that capture the fragility of existence and the necessity of connection to form part of his latest solo exhibition, Conversations.

“Embrace” by Joff. Image: Supplied

The exhibition is inspired by over two-year’s worth of conversations Joff  collected from people from all over including South Africa, Russia and  Portugal and from all walks of life but whose lives curve in the direction of being ‘on the fringe of society’ and where external judgment is frequent and familiar. 

“I have always had a genuine interest in people’s stories and for storytelling, says Joff, adding, “Through these conversations, I was exploring the importance of giving people a space to just talk and express in order to understand how they came to be who they are and in a particular set of circumstances”.

One such story that stands out as an undeniably indelible recount of hardship and pain, and that informed arguably the pièce de résistance of the collection titled The Process, is that of Clive Colyn’s story.

Joff met Colyn over two years ago in the infamous streets of blue-collar Gqeberha’s Central suburb — a storyteller’s haven teeming with tales that are just a simple ‘hello, how are you?’ away. 

“I would drive past him [Colyn] on a daily basis on my way home and the initial conversations started when I would offer him spare change, and he would often decline saying that he was ‘set for the day and didn’t need cash at that point’…” Joff recalls.

After several encounters spanning months, Colyn agreed to open up about his life on film one morning in Joff’s studio in the valley. The interview is an unfiltered, first-hand glimpse into Colyn’s very real, tortured life which Joff packed into a raw, 30-minute documentary that premiered on YouTube on 24 November and forms part of the Conversations exhibition which launched on 1 December.

“I said dad, what the hell, since when do you smoke rocks?” are the words that lift the curtain on the interview revealing Colyn seated in Joff’s studio, adjusting a crucifix around his neck, homemade from thin wire. 

Colyn settles dangling one hand over the other, which, like his face, are tired and warped from a tortured life, before confessing to having “had a great childhood”, adding, “I got away with ‘murder’, always”.

The first time Colyn was introduced to drugs was at a job he landed at a video store around the corner from where he and his family lived in Cape Town, two days after graduating matric in the 1990s. One morning, a colleague working the same shift offered him a line of cocaine in a kitchen located at the back of the store. “I had such a protected childhood, I said ‘dude, that’s only in the movies, really now’”. 

Soon, the young teen would find himself frequenting a nightclub in Cape Town called The Doors Nightclub, which opened a world of drugs for Colyn who would go on to discover ecstasy, acid, and eventually, rocks — the street name for crack cocaine.  

Colyn recalls his first time trying crack with absolute clarity. One evening at The Doors Nightclub he noticed a man smoking crack through a glass pipe at the back of the club and asked for a hit. “He said, ‘no, don’t touch this shit, it will fuck your life up’,” Colyn says, adding, “If only I had listened”. 

Now 43 years old, Colyn continues to reveal how a series of sinister events, ignited by being molested by a cousin 18 years his senior during his childhood, and exacerbated by his mother’s suicide in 2001, unraveled his life from taking hits of crack cocaine with his 64-year-old father to an attempt on his own life which nearly left him paralyzed, to the time he served in Pollsmoor Prison, and his eventual life flip-flopping on and off the streets of Gqeberha.

“We spoke for about two and half hours and I just let the camera roll. He had no direction from me on what I was going to be asking or how I was going to navigate the interview because I wanted to keep it off the cuff,” says Joff adding, “Although I personally had a few key points that I wanted to cover, I hadn’t plotted the conversation because I wanted it [the conversation] to feed itself and unfold in a genuine way”.

“Conversation and a space to be vulnerable are so important for understanding and connecting with each other. It is hard to fix and heal if you can’t express your issues or initial problems and map and unpack and track those issues. I guess with Clive, it is the classic cautionary tale but you can see the true effects of not having been afforded a safe space to unravel through conversation on people,” says Joff. 

“The Process” by Joff. Image: Supplied
“The Silence” by Joff. Image: Supplied

Joff comments that Conversations also acts as a poke at the overwhelming and often filtered, sanitised, packaged and curated societal standards that our screens scream at us on a minute-to-minute basis, as well as a reminder that real life is often raw, rough, and ravaged.

“I think in today’s climate of ‘wokeness’ and political correctness, we have lost the space (and possibly the ability) to just listen to someone else’s opinion and not ‘cancel’ them for it because it doesn’t fit a certain narrative or image. We need spaces to hear different perspectives and debate. It is an important part of learning and being,” says Joff.

“It is powerful to see how love or just some kind of human connection becomes your value and your driving force. Many of the people I speak to on the streets tell me that it is hard to have any friends because there is always an ‘angle’ or hidden agenda. Conversations gives these people space for them to tell their stories,” says Joff, adding, “Some have gone years without having a proper conversation with someone. We talk about struggling with the isolation that comes with lockdown, but this is everyday life for these people. No one talks or engages with them.”

A beautiful coincidence appears as the realisation that Joff’s exhibition was ignited and fuelled by conversation, and will crescendo in conversation as people engage with the final pieces.

“The emotions and feelings I get from the stories that are shared with me are channelled into these visual pieces and my hope is that, without having to know my intended meaning behind each piece, this exhibition will inspire meaningful connection and, of course, conversation,” Joff says. DM/ ML

Conversations is exhibiting at The Basement Gallery located at 2 Alabaster Street, Baakens Valley in Gqeberha on weekdays from 9am to 5pm and Saturdays from 9am to 2pm. All original works, as well as prints of original works, are for sale. A catalogue for Conversations is available on Joff’s website where a link to a virtual version of the exhibition will soon become available.


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