South African street artist Sonny brings together art and activism … one incredible mural at a time.
If you’ve driven around Joburg in recent years, chances are you’ve seen the remarkable work of street artist, Sonny. The iconic elephant facing Newport Road, just off Bolton Road, Parkwood, aptly named Jelani, which means great or powerful, is just one of the Sonny originals that draw viewers in around the country, with others gracing giant canvases world wide.
UK born, but having grown up in South Africa, his work has made his name as an incredible artist as well as an important voice in the world of conservation. But it’s clear he’s so much more than that. ‘I paint street murals as well as canvas work, so people often label me as a street artist, graffiti artist, muralist or contemporary painter. But an artist is pretty much what I am. My recent work has focused on topics such as conservation and environmental issues and I’ve been raising awareness for endangered wildlife, but I don’t think of myself as a conservationist. I just use my art to highlight issues that are important to me.’ While he might not have set out to be a conservationist, murals like Jelani have undoubtedly played a key role in bringing conservation into focus, especially in South Africa. ‘Growing up here, I’ve obviously seen first-hand the dangers these animals face and the importance of conservation. I was shocked by how many places in the world are shut off to nature and the issues surrounding it. It’s really crazy. Often people battle to name the animal I’m painting, let alone understand the struggles they’re facing. Most of the problems animals or nature face are critical, and many people haven’t the faintest knowledge about them.’
Even when he’s not working to bring a specific issue to light, Sonny’s South African upbringing and love of nature are still key to the direction his work takes. ‘For the most part, nature inspires me. I try to convey the power and majesty of these animals through my paintings, to evoke the feelings I get when I see them in the wild. Living in South Africa has obviously had a massive influence on my work. Nature and friends are really what keep me in South Africa. These days, I travel most of the year with South Africa as my base. If I ever eventually move overseas, I’ll always keep a place here in SA to come back home to.’
No matter where he is, his work manages to reflect Sonny’s ideals, while also taking inspiration from the space around it and creating something truly beautiful – no small task when you’re working on giant, challenging canvases. ‘My first ever painting was a mural. I’d always been drawn to street art, so it was a natural progression from indoor murals to the streets. I think a lot of things set street art apart from other forms of art. The process is a lot more intense. It’s a lot more physical and can be pretty mentally straining too, due to time constraints. You also have many elements (weather being a big one) that affect the process – things you don’t have to deal with in a studio. I think the importance for me is the public interaction. People on the street watch the whole process live and interact with you as you paint. They also see the final artwork for years to come, so in a way, it becomes theirs just as much as it’s mine. It’s a very satisfying relationship and I think, as an artist, it’s what makes public art so gratifying.’
Public art has truly earned him global recognition and attention, and today you can see Sonny’s original pieces in cities everywhere from Russia to the USA, Ireland, and England, among others. Through the course of his success, Sonny says travel has definitely been one of the high points.
‘My career highlights are all the places in the world I’ve been lucky enough to see, and the friends I’ve met along the way. I have a global family, so to speak.’ And when it comes to the biggest lessons he’s learnt? ‘There have been so many – but I’d probably say patience and determination.’
As he continues to paint the world in his particular style, Sonny will be constantly working to better himself as an artist – a journey he feels is truly ongoing. ‘This year I’ve started working with oil paints as a way to achieve a certain style I’ve been envisioning for a long time. I’m always working to push my art to a new level and sometimes that means going backwards to go forwards. It’s been a challenging move, but one I feel is finally paying off!’