A giant red door stands in front you and above it are the words ‘Free Portraits’ aglow in the evening sky. On a dark day as the sun sets and South Africa is once again under the gloomy spell of load-shedding, it is pure magic to experience a one-on-one performance of art with Anthea Moys. The inaugural Standard Bank Young Artist Award (SBYAA) winner for Performance Art hid in a quiet corner of CIRCA Gallery for her first performance of Free Portraits at the rebranding of Classicfeel to Creative Feel. It was a night made for the busy creative CEOs, managers and artistic directors that drove up to the gallery on another stressful eve traffic jams. As the guests circled into the wonderland of CIRCA Gallery with its winding pathways embracing them in its warm architecture, it was easy to begin to forget the hullabaloo of another day at work in Johannesburg city. African drumbeats melted away the hum of traffic as robots went dark. And, sweating glasses of cocktails dropped cooling beads of water as the invitees swirled up to the balcony. It was under the sunset’s shadow that a fire crackled at the centre of the floor; beyond the flames stood a giant red door with an invitation for Free Portraits.
The name Anthea Moys, for the many that are getting to know it, is synonymous with crowd interventions. She became popular with the Grahamstown audience, and National Arts Festival goers, when she created Anthea Moys versus Grahamstown for her SBYAA performance. She played against groups of people in the city, including an infamous game against a soccer team. She stood alone facing the soccer players and, even though some audience members joined her side, she hilariously lost. Free Portraits is unfamiliar territory for the artist who declares it is, ‘Always good to try new things!’ Her aim for this encounter was to create a work of art that people could actually participate in the making of. It is a bold undertaking that is as daring as her signature use of the colour red. Any undertaking by Moys heralds the theme of fearlessness. So, when Gerald (Roberto Pombo), the doorman, holds out his hand to help the first fearless guests into the scarlet booth and then helps them out to reveal gleaming smiles on childlike faces, it is pure magic.
Businessmen and women of the creative sector enter this industry with some artistic talent. The piece asks each person to enter and go through a process with Moys that sees them leaving with their own portrait in hand. The trick here is that in the booth they are alone but not. Moys views them from a smart phone and she guides the individual toward their eventual drawing through a set of headphones. The interaction is intimately removed but also humorously personal. There is a mirror facing the guest that incidentally allows for the space to feel larger and more freeing. It also means that they are facing themselves. This is the real gem of the participation with Moys, who is tucked away in a nearby corner. She becomes a sage to guide the experience and a voyeur of a journey through time; because her quirky lead directs the guest to see themselves without judgment, as they would have when they were but a child.
‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.’ Anthea Moys quotes Picasso as her influence for the form of the piece. It is a gesture towards unknowing in order to see anew. With the acknowledgement of how artists and creatives judge themselves – to the point where the work is no longer fun and the artist becomes despondent – this is an invitation to let go. Appropriately, as what was Classicfeel flies out of its nest to chart new territories as an unknown name – Creative Feel – the work speaks to the need for taking risks in order to grow. The risk is being alone. And Moys takes that risk with her guests. She is also alone, but without the comfort of the warm booth. She reflects that, ‘The performance was about 3 hours long for me. It was really intense! Each person was so different.’
Moys’ work is always a game that mirrors life. Her self-reflexivity is imbued in giggles. One’s drawing is Munchian blurs, another’s: a Picasso-like mess of shapes. The best part is stepping into a world where mistakes garner surprising laughter.