Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Amazing "Egg Man" and the equally amazing "Chickenman" Mkhize

Gregory Da Silva, originally from Benin, is the Amazing Egg Man. I have seen him wandering around Greenmarket Square, in the centre of Cairp Tahn, for all of two years now.

On his head, he carries this extraordinary construction. It changes shape and look, according to whatever is “on the go” at the time. The FIFA 2010 World Cup, is clearly the theme of the present construction.

But it is not just the height of the thing which is extraordinary – it is the actual concept. He has stuck half egg-shells - (as you can see, many of them!) onto this headpiece and it is this which has given him the title of “Egg Man”.

It has to be said that the whole experience is very odd. He chats endlessly into a telephone – you get snippets of conversation, and he is usually talking to Mandela. Or Helen Zille, the present Premier of the Western Cape. Mandela, (or the Premier) appear to be asking his how he is. He is always well and apparently completely unconcerned by the fact that he is being watched by small crowds of incredulous people. He chats on and on. He has the air of someone busy and going about his business. It is not a cell phone that he is speaking into – it is an old fashioned telephone set, plugged into no wall socket.

The object of the whole thing, which he does quite successfully, is to get people to take a picture of him and for that they should pay him something, which he collects on a flat grass plate. He never demands money. He just holds the grass plate and manages to not only balance the contraption on his head, but to walk in an easy carefree lope on the cobbled surface of Greenmarket Square. At the same time he also manages to take the money off the grass plate and deposit it somewhere on his person for safekeeping.

He reminds me of another (now deceased) character I saw in Pietermaritzburg many years ago - Chickenman Mkhize. Apparently, Chickenman, before becoming badly epileptic, used to work in a local Dairy. When he was medically boarded, he set up outside the Tatum Art Gallery where he displayed a weird mixture of mobile wire figurines and miniature road signs. These road signs were often very funny indeed, because the letters were often oddly arranged, forcing the viewer to actively engage with the piece. He would take orders, and you would write what you wanted the sign to say on a piece of paper. What he made out of it, was almost never what you wrote.

One of his favourite signs was “GONET OPOT” – which was the first of his signs which caught my attention, and had me needing to stop the car because I was laughing so much.

Another was “BEWAREO FJOGGERS” – which also had me laughing till the tears flowed. I had him make the one pictured above “SAFESE XZONE”, because I was working in the field of HIV/AIDS at the time – and we had it made into a T-shirt. (I remember paying R10 for it in the 1990s. It is now worth considerably more!)

The media he used was almost always, recycled material. He himself had strange, unwashed looking. He had a wildness about him, which was fairly frightening. But boy! Did his work make me laugh! We often would discuss whether or not he actually knew why his work made people laugh – we never asked him.

Gregory da Silva, the Egg Man, has something of that same strangeness about him. His laughter is staged. His teeth available for the camera (in a way that Chickenman’s were not), his “conversation” peculiar. But they are both brilliant artists. They force you to notice them. They make you stop what you were doing and engage, even if it is to choose to ignore them. To me, they are completely amazing!

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