Willem Samuel: An enigma

Standing in the Book Lounge on Roeland Street, Willem Samuel is easy to spot as he looks exactly like the comic version of himself from his popular graphic novel Mengelmoes.

He is surrounded by books, which is not uncommon for him. He grew up in a home filled with all kinds of books, ranging from nonfiction to semi-pornographic comic books from Amsterdam.

Willem Samuel surrounded by his artwork in his workspace. This was taken at an open house exhibition in his living room in London. SOURCE: Nick Hoyle.

His mother shaped the literature scene in South Africa, his grandmother was a famous painter, and, through his art, Samuel is shaping the way people see South Africa. With a mother like Antjie Krog and a grandmother like Dot Serfontein, creativity is practically hard-coded into his DNA.

His brown hair is a mess of out-of-place curls and his round black-rimmed glasses make him look slightly like Harry Potter. He has a patchy beard that seems to sprout up at random places on his upper lip and chin.

Sipping on a cappuccino at Vida e Caffè, Samuel, dressed in blue jeans, tekkies and a black and red nondescript shirt, could easily pass for one of the older students on a university campus.

Samuel and his sketchbook at a coffee shop in Cape Town. These are his rough ideas for his Life Choices artwork. SOURCE: Dalaine Krige.

He was commissioned to create an artwork by a NGO operating in the Cape Flats. His work will be a part of a project that will run in June for youth month as an attempt to raise awareness and promote the stories of exceptional young people.

Talking about the artwork that he was commissioned to do, his face clouds over. He tells a story of a young boy, Steven Arangies, raised in an abusive house where, on her 30th birthday, his mother was strangled to death by his father. Left alone with his siblings, the children were only found after two weeks and taken in by the welfare system.

Arangies is now a young man who has worked through his anger and has become a mentor.

“You have a little bit of a positive at the end but you’re dealing with 13-year old kids. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting in terms of stories but I think there are lots of them out there,” says Samuel.

“It’s such a foreign thing to me. Not just that people go through shit like that but that they survive,” he continues. His hand cups the one side of his face, obscuring half of his face from view. His one eye looks off into the distance and he says that the father had also been raping the younger sister.

Not having completed the artwork yet, he searches for the words to describe his idea. “What I don’t want to do is to make it sentimental or to sweeten it,” he says. Feeling unqualified to portray it realistically, he opts to instead “address it either metaphorically or symbolically”.

The artwork created by Samuel for the Life Choice initiative. SOURCE: provided by artist.

Having just returned from four years in London, his bare arms show the lack of sunlight. Whizzing around as he tells his stories, his hands are like a conductor’s at an orchestra.

“I think it’s the first time that I’m representing someone else’s real life,” he says. Having no personal source of inspiration to draw from presents a new challenge after dedicating years to his autobiographical graphic novel Mengelmoes.

However, Samuel is careful not to box himself into any one category. While studying a BA in Fine Arts at Stellenbosch from 2002 to 2005, Samuel was published in Bitterkomix and played bass in a band. “I’ve never been passionate enough about one thing to do it fully,” he says. While he has been described as a rebel and anti-establishment, Samuel believes that “there’s smart rebellion and there’s stupid rebellion”.

For him the rebellion comes down to the work. “I’ve had a charmed life. That’s why this story is so challenging to me because I haven’t had specific trauma.” He acknowledges his privilege and said that he and his wife have been re-imagining what life can look like with her having the so-called grown-up job.

While in London, he painted pieces that were sold in exhibitions and he opened for Jack Parrow at one of his concerts in London. He still writes and records music, while learning how to create animated videos on the side. His job at Super Strikers as art director will allow him to pursue his artistic inclinations without the weight of having to make a living off of them.

Samuel recording music in his living room in London. SOURCE: Marie-Louise du Bois

“I don’t think anyone or anything could or should exist in a vacuum. I’m wary of compartmentalising art to this special thing. I mean, I like art but I think an artist fulfils a certain role in society like any other career,” he says.

He continues by explaining that most of what is done is relational. “You’re in society and you create art in response to things you see around you but other people also view the things that you make,” he says. He has a strong sense of social responsibility, something he no doubt inherited from his parents.

Massaging the thoughts out of his head, he says that he has tried being just about art or music or his image. “You lose yourself. You’re not just one thing, you’re many things. I believe spirituality is your understanding of the universe or your place in it. It’s fundamental to how you go about it,” he continues, explaining how he makes sense of the world around him.

His best advice to younger artists is that talent is overrated. While it is necessary to “be yourself and to trust your instincts”, he also feels that hard work determines your success.

“The closest I got to [my passion] was exhibiting. It was great because it wasn’t just about making paintings. Creating that space was very interesting,” says Samuel. Seeing William Kentridge create an immersive experience through his artwork that transported the viewer into a different world inspired Samuel.

Samuel shows his rough art ideas in his sketchbook at Vida e Caffè in Cape Town. SOURCE: Dalaine Krige.

“At the moment I’m trying to put everything together,” he says. He hopes to take his music, lyrics, visual art, such as his comics, and create a narrative by combining them all. This is his current creative mission.– Dalaine Krige