A Symbol of African Unity
In the first heady years of the African Union, the world's eyes are increasingly turned to the continent from which humankind first appeared. Beneath the seemingly impenetrable mask of violence portrayed in popular media, lies a living and thriving cultural climate which Des Warde finds well depicted by West African street artist Gregory Da Silva.
The outfit always turns heads, and each day it boasts a new feature, a new symbol of an African culture or practice.
His headdress weighs up to twenty five kilograms, his body is armoured with artifacts and his face painted with tribal patterns and an undying smile. Each day, Gregory Da Silva presents the city centre with a new display of his symbolic art.
Gregory's voice is lively and he repeatedly offers phrases and words in French. Born in Benin, West Africa, 1979, he was trained in computer science at university, but went on to found a theatre group in Benin called 'Voice of Spirit' or 'Voix de l'Esprit' which performed politically motivated as well as comic and poetic theatre at the Benin National Library.
After receiving an invitation to perform at the MASA - Market for African Performing Arts - Festival in the Ivory Coast in 2003, where he represented his country, Benin, for a week before flying to South Africa. He sold his creations at the V&A Waterfront and began to grace the streets of Cape Town with his unique form of art. It was so unique it initially led the bemused Cape Town police to put him in the back of their car and call their superiors for advice! Naturally they were advised them to let him go and Gregory now enjoys a good relationship with the city authorities...
My attention is soon turned to his artifact-laden tunic which Gregory says is about "all African tradition, all African culture[s]" and he goes on to explain some of the more prominent objects displayed.
"Everything must be life,
everything must shine, and be positive"
First, he points out the clusters of sea shells hanging around his neck, saying that in Africa these shells were "old money" and once used as currency. He explains the eggs on his head dress as being symbolic of life and says "everything must be life, everything must shine, [and] be positive". Next his hands grab the arcane black bottle near his waist to explain that in his culture, the Sangoma people would place "good spirits" in a bottle, with which they would "heal sick people [they] passed while walking on the roads".
The broken shards of mirror found on his chest bear similar spiritual significance, and are often worn by Voodoo people in Africa and are said to be a kind of window into the spiritual world, and a "way to talk to [their] ancestor[s]".
Gregory says his main inspiration or motivation is to "make people laugh" and "make people happy" and to represent different African cultures. He says he always thinks "how we can put all of Africa together to make [it] one", adding that "not one country can be forgotten".
When he is travelling in Africa, be it in Senegal, Cameroon, Mali or the Congo, the local people invariably look at him and say "ahh, that is our culture" as they see something of their own represented. "All Africa is in my clothes" he says, drawing attention again to his peerless suit.
When not walking St. Georges Mall or Green Market Square, Gregory features at the Grahamstown festival, the Hermanus Whale Festival, has been hired to receive guests at hotels and airports, and has also appeared on SABC 2 and E-TV News.
He is very popular with tourists, especially those from Italy, England, America and Germany, who frequently ask why he does not come over and do his thing in their own country. But he says his focus is on Africa. Pictures of him certainly do get back to their countries though, as Gregory says everyday "hundreds" of pictures are taken of himself, usually posing with the tourists.
Asked about his dreams and ambitions, Gregory (or the "Egg Man" or "Ei man" as he is also known) says that this year he is planning on starting an art school, which is part of his 'Project For Africa' for this year. He wants to impart creative knowledge to South African youth, giving them the power to create beautiful things and also to support themselves, all part of his ultimate venerable ambition to "[bring] Africa together to make one".
Indeed, and good luck to him.