Breyten Breytenbach is an internationally renowned painter, poet and political activist. Born in South Africa, he was an outspoken enemy of apartheid, for which he underwent a seven-year prison sentence. He and I met recently in Italy, where he kindly agreed to this email interview.

We’ve been friends for over half a century, and I’ve never heard you explain what a painting meant for you. But I have heard you declare that they don’t “mean” anything: that you just paint that way because it’s what you want to do visually.

I could say: "I have no idea what I’m up to – except that it is important (to me)." After all, Basil Bunting wisely advises: "Always carry a corkscrew and the wine shall provide itself." Also, "The mystic purchases a moment of exhilaration with a lifetime of confusion…" And, "All you can usually say about a poem or a picture is, ‘Look at it, listen to it.’" For me ‘meaning’, if any, arises from the process of emergence of the images. All meaning is just shape relating to contents.

There are overriding stylistic features that make your paintings strikingly recognizable: clothed or naked human figures subjected to distortion or caricature, often self-caricatures, mostly in bare, cell-like interiors; accompanied by strange immobilized animals, birds, or fish. Some of these are stripped bare, perhaps flayed, or sewn up with thread, others are more threatening presences, like raptors or roosters.

Aye… But I very seldom set out with a sense of protest or disgust. I prefer to imagine that I start from a formal challenge – that becomes more ‘pointed’ (and impossible to resolve) as time passes: like fitting a figure into a given space, and ‘listening’ to the interactions between ‘thing’ and colour, focus and surroundings. Human figures, animals, birds, fish, objects etc., constitute a sort of emblematic vocabulary. I’d like to think that by putting them in the same space (surface of becoming) they enter into some interaction, tension (because of the incongruity).

Birds, hats, shoes abound as objects in their own right, and seem to declare that they are not symbols. They seem to defy being fitted into a story. Unless it’s that of a mind that is constantly slightly at odds with the world, and fascinated by the stubborn existence and otherness of dumb objects and dead creatures… Then again, “bird” is one of your pseudonyms in your fictions.

What happens – both in the making tensed between ‘luck’ or ‘accident’, and the projection of where the procedure is heading and what it will ‘resemble’ – is that images are drained of their generally-consented meaning – although I’m aware of the ‘language’ out there, identifying and ascribing purpose to representation. The unfinished inquiry, a conundrum, is into the ‘reality’ that these images are not birds, hats, shoes etc., but inert paint on a flat surface. Birds are particularly intriguing, mostly because of their shapes (generic in many ways), plumage and colours. Maybe they are the missing link between thought and expression! (On ne peut s’identifier à quelque-chose que grace à la différence.)

Right from your early work, a recurrent image is that of death, torture and physical constriction (straps and bars), well before you were imprisoned in South Africa for your anti-apartheid activities. Do you have any explanation for this?

Bunting, again, says: « The times are squalid. They always were. It is a poet’s duty to hold the line. » What line? Consciousness? Some gesture towards ethics? My return to images of incarceration or isolation, is fore-shortened – a rudimentary attempt at putting a face on something quite inchoate, aware probably of the incapacity to communicate what is really suggested. As for ‘before’, ‘during’ and ‘since’: they are more jumbled and contemporaneous than we’d like to know. You not so much ‘sense’ in advance, but quite literally take yourself to that place as the ‘natural’ consequence of imagining and trying to describe it. But the reality of the prison experience took the fun out of the ‘game’ of conquering new territories of depiction. Although I’ve since learned that ‘fun’ comes in many disguises. What remained for a long time afterward was a loss of innocent belief in one’s ability to use the tools, the language. A sense of ‘isolation’ /incompetence / incapacity to either access satisfactorily what had happened, what had gone missing, or to convey this.

Apart from the element of pain, and sometimes horror, there is often a mischievous sense of humour and self-mockery. Often these rub shoulders in the same painting.

Yes – I think if you paint or write for long enough (and knock your head against the things I refer to above), you can’t continue taking the process or the ‘self’ seriously. We tend to be pompous in our earnestness of mission, awed by ‘creativity’ and its unresolvable mysteries. And then – perhaps to escape? – we start laughing with the fool.

You seem to use self-portraits or self-caricatures in many paintings as images of a modern everyman-outsider-misfit, rather than in an autobiographical way. Does that make sense?

I suppose I’m influenced by what we could call ‘existentialism’: the essential inconsequentiality of the individual, and observing the fierce obstination in believing there’s a ‘purpose’. The self-portrait – other than being the ‘object’ most readily at hand, familiar/unfamiliar and therefore a sort of meditation on "now you see it, now it’s gone" – also acts as mouthpiece, persona in a play. The self is just a tool, an extension of the hand’s movements, sometimes a go-between. It may not be the most performing instrument but that’s what you have to do with. So one observes it, notes its defects and the bluntness setting in, and you take care of it.

Your paintings usually have very strong, rich colour contrasts and finely modelled outlines. Why, then, do you quite often introduce awkward, gauche elements in the figures portrayed? For instance, the feet in your painting modelled on and partially parodying Frida Kahlo’s double self-portrait. Is it to remind viewers not to depend on the transparency of representation, to bump their noses against the fact that it is a painting?

Probably – though it is not that intentional. Nearly in all traditions the hands and the feet (together with the face – and then often the eyes or the gaze) seem to be where consciousness focusses. Maybe also because hands and feet ‘give away’ more than they’re aware of. They tend to be more ‘naked’ than the rest of the anatomy. But it may also be a pictorial lexicon.

Throughout your life you have been a (much acclaimed) poet as well as a painter. How do you feel your poetry and your painting are related? Does an initial creative impulse ever lead both to a painting and a poem?

Occasionally, yes. But I’m far more interested in the similarities between the two disciplines – in the ways one can ‘read’ the one in the light of the other. Words have colour and texture ; colours have histories or narratives. ‘Movement’ may be as much of an illusion in writing as in painting – and as real to the reader/translator, that is, if such a person allows her/himself the space in which the ‘story’ is told. Paintings also have a beginning, a present and an end. A major difference and satisfaction (that I try sometimes to resolve by collages, for instance) may be that painting or drawing is a physical activity and you can actually touch and shape the material. It probably activates another zone of the mind – de-activating the intellectual preponderance.

How far do dreams provide matter for your paintings, as they clearly do for some of your short stories and poems?

The awareness of ‘spaces’ (pre-existent. immutable?) just on the other side of the skin of being awake/aware, is probably the same. Similarly, many concerns shaped by reason fall away – the telescoping of sequentiality, the autonomy of ‘logic’, the self-evident inter-relatedness. Some neuroses similarly recur. Dreaming is an ongoing dialogue with the need to understand and thus to disarm, but also to escape limitations. Dreams are the open wounds of existence, no? They are also objects, fully formed in their singularity and field of references – even if in transcription they may become objects of writing. The apparent distancing comes from their being observed as ‘objects’, the way still(ed) lives would be, without ‘understanding’ or ‘interpretation’. Perhaps writing/painting is an attempt to, under certain circumstances, penetrate the dream ‘logic’.

You split each year between Europe and Africa. Does where you are at the time affect the contents and style of your painting? How far do you identify with African and how far with European art?

Big question! I notice, mostly retrospectively, that the environment (colours, light, spaces, maybe the feel, and the traditional interpretations of these, the cultural memory one could say) of different places tend to have an impact. As for ‘identification’ with either African or European art (my south could be Spain where I live as opposed to the north) – that may be defined by the differences (and similarities) between ‘magic’ (not confined by a cultural heritage of what constitutes ‘art’): just to be or incarnate things as emblematic of states of being, and representativity (status and position and history) on the other hand. Are these different approaches to expressing impotence? Exorcism under different guises?

Breyten Breytenbach is an internationally recognized painter who has exhibited world-wide. Born in 1939 in Bonnievale, South Africa, he studied at the Michaelis Art School in Cape Town. He is also considered one of the greatest living poets in Afrikaans. His work has been translated into many languages and has been honored with numerous awards. He served a seven-year prison sentence in South Africa for his anti-apartheid activities. In 1992 he co-founded the Gorée Institute in Senegal and was its Executive Director from 2002 to 2010. He is a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur and a Commandeur des Arts et Lettres. He holds honorary doctorates from the Universities of the Western Cape, Kwazulu-Natal, and Ghent (Belgium).