Joseph Buys, 59, is so good that he will now be having his first art exhibition in Bo-Kaap in June.
Joseph has been in and out of prison “for everything except sexual assault or rape”, he says.
“There’s not a prison I haven’t been in in the Western Cape. I have been in jail for 24 crimes and last year, on my birthday, I was released for my last crimes of motor vehicle theft, robbery and theft.
“I was in prison for a total of 41 years and a day,” he tells the Daily Voice.
Originally from Calvinia and now living in Strand, Joseph says his criminal career started at the age of 14, just a day before his 15th birthday.
“I murdered a boy in my class whom I knew. This was during the apartheid era and this boy was giving the names of the riot safety officers to the apartheid police,” Joseph says.
With a distant look in his eyes, he adds: “Life in prison is bitter. You don’t have a voice, movement, dis nie jou ma se huis nie. If I could speak to 14-year-old me, I would tell him to go into art and not enter the criminal world.”
He was not always the model prisoner, either.
“I escaped from prison three times. In Tulbagh, I broke out through the fence. In Calvinia, I broke out through the roof,” he recalls.
“At Calvinia SAPS holding cells, I broke out by sawing the bar open. Someone brought us a parcel of fish and chips. The saw was hidden in a loaf of uncut bread. The constables on duty were relaxing, so I escaped.”
Joseph was one of the first bandiete at Pollsmoor and joined the 26s gang.
“I was of the first prisoners in Pollsmoor in 1977. We painted those walls. In prison I joined the 26s gang; it was stupid because I placed myself under a spotlight.
“I was also very arrogant. It was so bad that if people even looked at me in a way I didn’t like, I’d lash out. I stabbed wardens because of this.”
Joseph says he has always loved drawing, but only took art seriously on 2015 while at Drakenstein Prison when a warden encouraged him to join the art rehabilitation programme.
All his artworks are self-portraits, and are done in paint and ink.
“I cannot believe the person I am now. Art has brought calm and discipline to my life,” he says.
“When I draw, I want to express the road I’ve travelled. I want people to feel the emotion of the moment.”
He uses transparent plastic sheets, an etching needle, ink and cotton wool and says it “takes me a whole day to complete a sketch”.
Avital Laing, an artist and the owner of the Urban Hub Gallery, where Joseph’s work will be showcased, says she has never met an artist as unique as he.
“I’ve seen a lot of talent and he is quite phenomenal. It’s not something you see every day,” Avital says.
“The exhibition will be named Joseph. We encourage people to come and see for yourself what change can do.”
The exhibition will take place on 20 June at 6pm at Urban Hub Gallery in Bo-Kaap.