Eddie Rafferty: The Pursuit of Happiness

South Africa's people and places are captured with colour and invention in this career-spanning showcase bringing intrigued masses to Banbridge

It’s the self conscious play of the hands, the downward cast of the eyes, the edgy pose on the chair that makes Eddie Rafferty’s portrait of Betty, a maid from Pretoria, South Africa, so telling. Betty’s place in an affluent home is a simple work space, ironing board at the ready, the window opening onto lush gardens beyond. The 'Man Looking for Work' has dressed in his Sunday best suit, albeit a touch too big, and is standing tall, expectant, in the middle of the frame. The two men slumped silently on a sofa in 'The Sun Rises and the Sun Sets and Time Waits for No Man' seem resigned to watching the world go by.

With his eye for detail and a natural empathy for his fellow human beings, Rafferty really gets under the skin of his South African subjects. Although the first in a series of larger-than-life heads, the one he calls 'Disco Dancer' was made in London in 1996, while the others depict strong characters he met during his first days in Johannesburg in 2002. They include a street hawker, a guy called Philimon and a Zimbabwean refugee who tried to rob him. Etched on steel, their faces are not black but bronzed, their portraits enhanced by the delicately drawn detail of their shirts and jumpers.

Philimon, 2002, Etching on steel, 51 × 53 cm

'Philimon', 2002, Etching on steel, 51 × 53 cm

Rafferty’s choice of South Africa as a destination for his first international art residency was not entirely serendipitous. When his uncle was serving with the South African Rifles, he met and married a Ugandan lady and brought her back to Gilford, County Down. Eddie’s brother has been working in the oil industry in Nigeria for the last 30 years. Following that first visit to the Bag Factory studios in Johannesburg Rafferty has been back to South Africa nine times working as an artist in residence with prison inmates and hospital patients like Violet whose progress at the Weskoppies mental hospital in Pretoria he charts in a series of acrylic paintings on wood and paper.

Always on the look out for stories and people to paint, the artist is in his element in the red earthed townships of Soweto or Orlando. From among the maze of sun-drenched tin shacks he picks out the African Multi Shop general store, Zama’s hair salon, the tailor Solly Mogale’s workshop or one of the shebeens and bars where men gather to watch football as they did when South Africa hosted the World Cup in 2010. Sometimes he uses an actual page from The Daily Sun newspaper as a canvas; sometimes he composes a scene like South Africa v Mexico as a brightly coloured paper collage. Rooting around on a dump in Orlando, Rafferty found some matchboxes, collector’s items designed to celebrate famous South African footballers. The full series of African greats numbered 21 but the three Rafferty found are reproduced as lithographs attached to a large Shell sign in 'Matchbox Stars'.

Matchbox Stars, 2005, Metal signage with 3 lithographs, 91 × 183 cm

'Matchbox Stars', 2005, Metal signage with 3 lithographs, 91 × 183 cm

Rafferty likes to point up the similarities between life in Africa and life in Ireland. There’s often a cock fight in the townships just as there is in the County Down countryside; there’s talk of cures and charms and of superstitions. Tokoloshe is a Zulu spirit, a bit like an Irish banshee, who comes in the night to steal people away, so they raise their beds on bricks hoping that will protect them. This story is illustrated in an etching framed by a rusty metal box which was once part of a farm tractor.

In South Africa Rafferty’s newfound friends called him the White Professor, but it seems he has learned much from their make do and mend mentality, their versatility, their ingenuity. A couple of scenes are painted on old tea chest lids. The base for 'Cat Bang Boxer' is a cardboard shirt box that once belonged to Lord Caledon while the prize fighter’s shorts are made from a piece of beautifully handwritten paper, an extract from the Archbishop of Armagh’s Last Will and Testament dated 1834. Other collage materials include the lined pages of a school attendance register which make up a man’s shirt or the street surface in a town which really exists in South Africa called Belfast.

Rafferty 3

'Waiting for Tokoloshe', 2004, Metal box construction and etching (left) 'Cat Bang Boxer', 2009, Collage on shirt box, 61 × 56 cm (right)

Rafferty never uses an easel but works on the flat, a technique that distinguishes his style which is narrative and cartoonish and finds echoes in the work of African artists he admires like William Kentridge, Sam Nhlengethwa, Marlene Dumas or the Malian photographer Sekou Keita. On the cover of South Africa’s most influential art magazine, Drum, Rafferty admired a photograph of Henry Nxumala, a pioneering investigative journalist who was murdered in 1957 by unknown assailants and then he painted him in Chinese ink on paper. On pieces of wood from the ceiling of a Victorian house in County Down, he has created his own version of David Goldblatt’s famous photograph 'Orlando Wedding'.

When Rafferty left school he became a leather worker with the Gilford firm Shane Wright, who made saddles, handbags and belts. At the same time he attended art classes at night at Lurgan Technical College. Here he was taught by photographer Victor Sloan and met the artist Neil Shawcross who was so impressed by Raffery's talent that he encouraged him to paint and paint more, advice that eventually led him to a place at the Belfast College of Art where he enrolled at the age of 23 and emerged with an Honours degree in printmaking and drawing.

Betty

'Betty', 2010, Acrylic on paper, 76 × 58 cm

Although Eddie Rafferty’s work is held in many public and private collections it seems entirely fitting that this first major exhibition is showing at the F E McWilliam Gallery, for Banbridge is still the artist’s home town. Some of the earlier works on display reflect his childhood memories of life in the family farmhouse near Gilford – a kitchen Ceili in his mother’s house or mourners gathered in the graveyard at his father’s funeral. 'Cleaning Up After the Queen' recalls the days when the national anthem was played at the end of the night at events in Northern Ireland.

The interior of Banbridge’s now defunct Art Deco cinema is reproduced in a gorgeous sepia-toned etching on steel. There is a lovely design element and a charming community spirit in the lithograph 'Gilford Pigeon Club', which records the time when members and their pigeons met in the Gilford and District hall. Impressed by the film Hunger starring Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, Rafferty re-imagines the set. Painted overall in green, some of it emerald, 'The Death of Bobby Sands by Steve McQueen' portrays the director standing at the head of the hunger striker’s bed surrounded by cameras and lights, explaining the up-coming scene.

Steve McQueen

'The Death of Bobby Sands by Steve McQueen', 2012, Acrylic on wood, 30 × 46 cm

There is much colour and real invention in this exhibition which is made all the more enjoyable by the informed commentary of a gallery guide. It seems that Rafferty’s efforts in The Pursuit of Happiness is drawing many visitors including resident South Africans who are intrigued by this County Down man who has been to their country and painted their people.

Eddie Rafferty: The Pursuit of Happiness is at the F.E. McWilliam Gallery, Banbridge until September 2. For opening times and more go to www.femcwilliam.com.