EVERYTHING PAINTED GOLD
Damian Le Bas Jr surveys the life and art of his father, a leader of the Roma Revolution
DAMIAN LE BAS, JR
“Damian Le Bas is a tribe of one”, remarked the writer, critic and jazz singer George Melly in 1992. He had his reasons. Melly was opening a show of works by Le Bas at the Horsham Arts Centre, a glass-fronted theatre in one of the wealthiest corners of southern England. The invitation featured a drawing called The Council Tenants, in which wide-eyed faces stared from the windows of orange and purple terraced homes, and on display was a vivid portrait of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, which Melly later acquired. The family of Le Bas’ wife (and my mother) Delaine, were in attendance, so the private view was full of Gypsies. Someone pointed at George Melly’s ring and shouted, “Dik at the fawni mush, it’s got a yawk in it!” (“Look at the ring man, it’s got an eye in it!”). Socialites and social housing; pastel drawings and plasterers; world travellers and Romany Travellers. It was a night emblematic of Le Bas’ artistic life.
It isn’t hard to see why Damian Le Bas (1963–2017) was often viewed – and viewed himself – as an outsider, nor why he hated any attempt to simplify, reduce or pigeonhole him or anyone else. Little about his life was straightforward. Le Bas was born in Sheffield in 1963, bearing an old Huguenot surname. Most of his mother’s family was Irish Catholic by descent, while his father’s side had connections to London as well as Derbyshire Romany ancestry. When he was ten, the family relocated to West Sussex, and by his teens he was an ardent supporter of three different football clubs: Sheffield United, Chelsea and Brighton. His friends would tease him about his split loyalties, but for him it was about staying true to his widely spread roots. In his art as in his conversation, he elevated the mixedness of the human condition to the status of the sacred, and the kaleidoscope of humanity remained central to his work until his death in December 2017.
After a turbulent time at school, Le Bas left early and fell in with some of the local scallywags and scoundrels in his adopted hometown of Worthing on the Channel shore. Many of his friends were older than him and he spent time on the streets, took drugs, got into scrapes and was forced to grow up fast. After a few years of life as, in his own words,“a little urchin”, an acquaintance’s sister spotted his drawings and suggested he apply to an art course to funnel his creative energy. He was accepted at Worthing Art College with no qualifications bar a small portfolio of drawings, before being set to work in an isolated shed, lest he distract other students with his music, jokes and inability to concentrate. He made friends with staff and students, but struggled to get his artwork taken seriously. One tutor suggested he’d be better off trying for a career as a stand-up comic. At one point, he produced a huge painting that provoked a Christian Union and local far-right British National Party protest. It featured the head of Moses and the words: “MOSES WENT UP THE MOUNTAIN AND WHEN HE CAME DOWN HE WAS A DREADLOCKS MAN.”
Le Bas struggled to fit into the Royal College of Art with the tutors. He seemed to care more about hijinks and DJing Northern Soul parties rather than studying. One tutor said his work looked like vomit, which hurt Le Bas deeply. For his final show, he exhibited all his possessions, every single one of which he had painted gold.
About this time he met Delaine and they married quickly, and, soon, I was born. People observed that Le Bas’ work was reminiscent of patterned fabric, so he applied to study textile design at the Royal College of Art, while Delaine applied to St Martin’s – against the odds, they both got in. Delaine’s Romany family and the big characters they mixed with – boxers, builders, horsemen, flower sellers, wheeler-dealers and pub-dwellers – fuelled Le Bas’ interest in his own roots, and repeated tattoo-like symbols began to appear in his work. Pound signs, paisleys, boxing gloves, horses and belt buckles cropped up alongside footballers, The Bible and the shamrock.
After graduating with a Masters degree in textile design, he focused instead on producing large, colourful drawings, centred on schematised human faces. A hallmark of his work from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s was the multicolour “forcefield” pattern of alternating bright lines that gave the images a hallucinogen-infused feel. While there was humour in many of his works, others were dark: The Death Car was created after his sister Marianne was badly scarred in a car accident and showed a naked, contorted woman on the roof of a moving car that had maniacal faces for wheels.
By now, Le Bas’ work was beginning to be discussed in the context of art brut or outsider art. There were signs of commercial success: a group show at the Alpha Cubic gallery in Tokyo, and a major art brut group show, “Sårlingår”, alongside Henry Darger at the Malmö Konsthall in 1991. Several of his works were acquired by Monika Kinley for the Musgrave-Kinley Outsider Art Collection, now held by the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester. Le Bas described this period as one of the happiest times in his life as an artist. Through the outsider connection he befriended artists, including Alex “Perifumo” Gergiou and Albert Louden, and was buoyed by the inclusion of his work in Raw Vision.
Living on a council estate and selling flowers on the street to support himself, Le Bas was hurt by the insistence from some that true outsider artists must not make a living from their art. Yet the boldness and obsessively repeated patterns of his work still seemed to mark it as outsider art in the view of, for instance, Roger Cardinal, who had originally coined the term. As writer Sue Steward wrote in The Daily Telegraph, his depictions of “cats with Catherine wheel eyes, and policemen whose helmets sprout hands and eyes show little influence from the formal art world”. There were some further exhibitions and press, but neither occurred with Le Bas’ desired frequency.
In 1997, his sister Marianne died from a rare disease, aged just 29; just over two years later, his father committed suicide. These tragedies took a heavy toll on Le Bas, especially given that his mother had suffered a paralysing stroke. He developed a phobia of hospitals and cemeteries, and crosses, headstones and references to funerals began to feature in his work. He painted quickly, as if exorcising rather than depicting. He would sometimes say that joy had gone out of his art and that he was just going through the motions.
Still, there were exhibitions in London, Chicago and Baltimore. A group show titled “Outlaws” was followed by a joint exhibition called “Wanted: Dead or Alive, the artworks of the renowned outsiders Damian & Delaine Le Bas” at James Colman Gallery. Damian had painted large canvasses in bright, solid colours, and returned to a beloved topic from his youth: Batman and the Penguin. Batman represented the “outlaw” artist; the Penguin, untrustworthy art-world fat-cats. 1970s punk band Eddie and the Hot Rods played at the private view, which was attended by a huge crowd including the singer from Pulp, Jarvis Cocker. Cocker bought some of Damian’s paintings, and there was another group exhibition with Jimmy Pursey of punk rock group Sham 69. In the past, Le Bas had been teased for the crazy fractals of his self-presentation; now, he was teasing the meaning of the word “outsider” – and enjoying it.
In 2006, Damian and Delaine, having been included in a show of Roma and Traveller artists called “Second Site”, had their work appear in a pan-European catalogue of contemporary Gypsy art. It was published with a solid gold-coloured cover and the title “Meet Your Neighbours” (an anti-Gypsy headline taken from the British tabloid newspaper, The Sun). The couple were invited to be part of the first-ever Roma Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Here they befriended artists including Gabi Jimenez of France, whose style tessellated with Damian’s and with whom he often collaborated.
Venice marked the beginning of ten years of almost-constant exhibiting in a string of European cities. The couple participated in the third Prague Biennale and made the first of many trips to Berlin, where the curator Moritz Pankok had opened a major gallery dedicated to Roma and Traveller art: Kai Dikhas (Romani for “Where We See”). Damian Le Bas’ work was exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, which gave him reason to finally visit Ireland. He spent much of the trip in a Dublin pub, drinking with the locals who made him feel loved and accepted.
Old maps became his focus, and he smothered whole continents with moustachioed, wide-eyed, curly-haired faces that were both Gypsies and an ethnicity-transcending crowd of humanity. This period of quasi-lunatic productivity also led to the construction of a shanty art-complex – reminiscent of urban Roma encampments – outside the Austrian Parliament. At this time, Damian and Delaine teamed up with curators Ivor Stodolsky and Marita Muukkonen to create “guerrilla” pavilions and, in 2014, the Le Bas family spent a month living in an art encampment outside the Crown Court, in the city of York in the UK, in a caravan, a Ford Transit and a wooden shack.
In his final years, Damian embarked on what was to become perhaps his most satisfying series of collaborations, with Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theatre and the Roma Trial activist art organisation. Damian and Delaine began to refer to the Gorki as “the Roma art HQ”. Damian smothered discarded packaging with drawings of football fans, soul boys, powerful women and Roma characters, railing against Brexit and the collapse of British tolerance.
His long-held dream of a “Roma Biennale” dedicated to Gypsy art was fulfilled in Berlin in spring 2018. It included a parade that climaxed in front of the Brandenburg Gate. A float covered in Damian’s “Gypsy clouds” pumped out Romany dance tunes just a few hundred yards from the memorial to the Sinti and Roma murdered in the Holocaust. This followed one of the proudest moments of the artist’s life: designing the animated stage set for the Gorki’s Roma Armee play, which debuted only months before his death. As the curtain rose, a gargantuan backlit reproduction of his Gypsyland Europa map was revealed, a silhouetted figure in a top hat stretching a languid arm across the continent. In later productions of the play, a line was added, referring to Damian Le Bas as “the soul of the Roma Army”. The “soul boy” would have approved.
THE SON OF ARTISTS DELAINE AND DAMIAN LE BAS, SR, – DAMIAN LE BAS, JR, IS A WRITER FROM WEST SUSSEX, UK. HIS FIRST BOOK, THE STOPPING PLACES: A JOURNEY THROUGH GYPSY BRITAIN, WON A ROYAL SOCIETY OF LITERATURE JERWOOD AWARD AND WAS SERIALISED ON BBC RADIO 4.