Beauty in eye of beholder

East London architect shows his deft hand at painting as he decorates the grubby walls with colourful murals

Mindless beauty. That is the way East London street artist Nathan Sanan describes the flamboyant birds that adorn a grungy cement wall at the top end of East London’s Chamberlain Road.

By day an architect, Sanan, 31, spends his spare time enhancing public places, yet, although the pieces are expertly executed, he says they are merely pretty decorations that beautify public spaces.

“There is so much mindless hate and anger in this world and that has become peoples’ default setting and so I try to be the antithesis of that. What’s wrong with some mindless beauty?” says Sanan, who recently returned from a whirlwind trip to London where he embellished a restaurant wall with a great horned owl.

In East London his secretary bird, a lilac crested roller, loeries and a couple of malachite kingfishers pop in glorious colour from the pitted grey wall delighting motorists and attracting couples who use it as a vibrant backdrop for their matric dance photographs.

“My ego is not boosted, but I get a tremendous sense of satisfaction that they are enjoying it as much as I enjoyed creating it.”

Sanan rails against calling himself an artist.

“Artists have a stance, a style, a point of view. All I’m doing is making pretty things to enhance a community, a wall. It would be an insult to artists to call myself an artist.”

Yet Port Elizabeth-born Sanan, who as a child dreamt of becoming car designer, has always been creative. “I have always been fascinated with creation. When I was five I buried all my toys in the garden and couldn’t find them again so I stole my grandfather’s pipe cleaners and made helicopters from them. I still do what I can to focus on positive outcomes.”

A keen sportsman, Sanan found himself at a loose end after an ankle injury and used the time he usually devoted to hockey to learn how to wield a spray can and transform blah walls into dazzling, uplifting canvasses.

“In Port Elizabeth I was paid by the Nelson Mandela Bay Development Agency to paint and did an upliftment of Bird Street and have also used a cherry picker to paint seven-metre-tall elephants.

In East London, Quigney’s Ekhaya Eziko butchery and tshisa nyama is resplendent with the faces of a family matriarch and two of her family members, a massive mural that took him four days to complete and during which he befriended curious onlookers.

Frere Hospital’s new paediatric orthopaedic ward has also been embellished with his work.

“I did a series of landscapes all abstracted into triangles as a commission. I put my heart and soul into it and when I finished I took my headphones out and heard pats of applauding little hands and there were children in splints and wheelchairs lined up at the window. I found it incredibly overwhelming. I welled up a bit.

“I make sure I capture my process [on film] so that people can see how to do things and hopefully try to do something themselves,” said Sanan, who uses YouTube and Instagram as platforms to showcase his skills. “It’s about trying to encourage people to create, to not be afraid to do things.

“My intention is to fill the Chamberlain Road wall with indigenous birds and I like to create in front of people to spark something in their mind to stop them saying ‘I can’t’.”

He created his first bird – the secretary – in November 2016 and last Sunday spent a happy four hours adding a pair of malachite kingfishers to the mural.

“I am well aware I am vandalising, but I hope my intentions to beautify are seen. When people first see me paint they think my intentions are negative; that I am defacing a wall or writing something hateful. That is why I do it during the day so I can take responsibility for what I’m doing and strip away the negative connotations of graffiti.”

  • Sanan’s work can be seen on Instagram on @na041art and he can be contacted on nathan@sanan.co.za

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