Visual rhymes from the landscape of the mind

From Karoo farmboy to street artist to emerging young South Africa expressionist painter, Justin Southey says his love of nature and the outdoors led him to create the abstract landscapes now featuring in the country’s premier art galleries.

Southey, 32, who grew up on a cattle and sheep farm on the edges of the Gariep Dam, has his latest large format work up in the Everard Read Gallery’s summer exhibition – and he has cracked the international art scene with sales in the Middle East and Europe.

IMAGINATION UNLEASHED: Justin Southey working on his latest work for the Everard Read’s upcoming botanical exhibition

Southey’s exuberant, colourful abstracts are not the result of anything he is trying to reproduce visually, rather they are an emotional response to joyfully trudging around in nature.

“My works tend to be very emotional,” he explains. “I would probably call them expressive abstract landscape.”

Curator Emma van der Merwe sees them this way: “Free floating and often in sublime blackened spaces, ‘hills’ and ‘deep ravines’ jostle … Bold, layered planes of colour serve as contrasting richly animated moments… the paintings pull and push… With a mixture of melancholy and exuberance, Southey’s ‘landscapes’ refer to unconscious’ visual rhymes’ and all appear to converge from various internal landscapes in the artists mind.”

This thoughtful young talent also cites his interest in the transience of people and their use of land as starting points for his work.

The suspension of belief

“We tend to think of life and home as permanent factors, whereas in fact, everything is in a state of transience. We live in a time of exponential population increase. Food, environmental changes and conflict all lead instability and the migration of people. I find the concept of home and belonging really interesting in this context.

“Some of my works seem to express a deep longing for a place that is not yet discovered; that is mysterious and unfolding.”

Where did it all start?

Although boarding school did not cultivate any creativity in his childhood, he says his imagination was stimulated at home, thanks to his mother who read to him regularly.

“Somehow I think that fostered a very creative imagination and an inquiring mind.”

He recalls rampant doodling as being his earliest brush with art.

“Although I didn’t do art as a subject, my books were covered in doodles,” says Southey, who now lives in Stellenbosch, but is currently visiting his family’s Eastern Cape farm.

“I got a digital camera for my 18th birthday and realised that I had a pretty good eye and enjoyed composing images.”

He went on to graduate with a BA in Applied design, then majored in photography at the Stellenbosch Academy of Graphic Design and Photography.

“After graduating I found myself quite conflicted. Although I had specialised in photography in my final year, I wasn’t particularly interested in being a commercial photographer.”

But Southey wanted to continue exploring his new-found creativity and landed a freelance gig with Men’s Health magazine as an illustrator.

“I kind of fell into being a freelance illustrator; working for various local and international companies.”

Living and working in Woodstock, Cape Town, he also began having fun as a street artist, adding his lighthearted imaginary characters and bold typography to grungy parts of his neighbourhood.

From 2009 onwards Southey’s name started to feature in shows at respectable contemporary galleries and in 2010 he was named a Design Indaba favoured emerging creative.

But he began to feel an urge to delve deeper – into the unconscious imagination.

“By about 2012 I started to become increasingly dissatisfied with my works and had this burning desire to work on some very large abstract canvasses in a more contemporary art space.”


A life-changing visit to an exhibition in Stellenbosch three years ago activated a turnaround in Southey’s artistic exploits. “For the first time in my life I stood transfixed by a painting. It was a work by Cathy Layzell and after about 30 minutes I knew I had to go for it. I bought some large canvasses, some board and just started painting.”

His first expressive abstract works were produced while he was living amid the mountains of Franschhoek and was in a dark space emotionally.“I didn’t set out to paint a landscape, but it seemed to emerge from within me as if echoing the surrounding mountains as bastions of security and strength.”

A few months later Southey was satisfied he had a body of work that was original and worth showing.

“But at the same time I remained very intimidated and didn’t quite know who or where to take it,” says the artist, who describes the process at the time as “nerve-wracking”.

When two people gave him the same contact at the Everard Read, Southey took it as as a sign, “prayed a lot” and e-mailed the gallery. His work – which is very different from the strong landscape tradition that has come out of the Eastern Cape – struck a chord and was accepted for exhibition.

“As it turned out they happened to have a group show entitled Pastoral Abstraction with some amazing artists coming up in a few weeks’ time and the brief suited my works perfectly, so I snuck in.”

Since then he has exhibited in three Everard Read exhibitions, including the Cape Town’s gallery’s winter exhibition last year which featured top names like Beezy Bailey and Lucky Sibiya. And earlier this year Southey exhibited in the prestigious Circa gallery’s cubicle series.

Right now he’s back in the hot, dry northern reaches of the Eastern Cape working on a commission for the Everard Read’s upcoming botanical show.

After that? Actually, ditch that question – it’s a foolish proposition for an artist plunging into the random landscape of the unconscious. —