‘The Thoughtful Man’ is a series of portraits that I’m currently working on, as oil paintings or drawings, depicting the modern man as I see him subjectively. I aim to complete between 12 to 15 portraits.

This series is a collection of men whom I know personally — regardless of generation, religion, status, colour, sexual preference and country; relatives and friends who have held up the mirror of inspirational maleness, have some defining character I look up to and shown me the more positive, albeit imperfect, characteristics of being a modern man in South Africa.

In South Africa, where racial inequality permeates into everything, even in art (the last and most sacred frontier of truth), I decided to put aside the false pretense of living in a racially balanced society, since I am white and a male, and rather than ‘earn points’ by depicting a balanced portfolio of men across different races, I decided to focus more on painting men I knew personally. I wanted to paint men’s characters. Their race, although a defining container of their history and personality, is still merely the mortal veil over their being.

It is becoming an interesting snap-shot of my own life too, being of generation X, where though I do have some black and coloured friends, it’s obvious that I don’t have many. Naturally, my relatives are mostly the same race I am. In fact, I realised, perhaps it’s because I’m an artist, or just the way I am personally, but I don’t really have that many close friends of my own race either. Are we just drifting apart as a society generally? That’s another topic for another time.

I think men are feeling very much alone in this world in these current times. I mean alone, privately, quietly, within their souls. While the game is on, or at the dinner table, at a braai. How many men in this country even admit to themselves while lying awake at night that they really have no clue about what they’re feeling? This strange emptiness and ‘imposter syndrome’.

Like I say, this is a subjective viewing of the modern man, but I can’t help sensing that this feeling is wide-spread. Hence, I wanted to explore this topic for myself through art, and by painting portraits from life, thereby ‘interview’ my sitters.

I want to explore the duality of vulnerability and confrontation.

Since in this age it seems that men are no longer viewed in a positive light in our society, or seen at all. With the rise of feminism and woman rightly demanding equality with men, I wanted to take a look at men’s reactions to women. I was growing tired of the unhealthy archetypes of the bullying, dominant male, and the weak, cowering-before-his-wife, voiceless man. Is there no healthy middle ground where men are allowed to be men, neither afraid of being vulnerable, nor of confrontation when it is needed? If men cannot respect themselves, how will they respect strong women?

It’s a real cliché, although true in South Africa, that the lack of fathers and healthy male role models is the real disease of our nation. Of the world mostly too.

Going beyond the topic of rape and crime and youth growing up without a sense of purpose, I wanted to start from a personal place and consider that I do have a good father, and good uncles, a good brother, cousins and friends. I want to ask them what they personally feel the role of a man in society is, or in the natural order of the world, whether it is better to confront women, or be silent.

Thus I am exploring the archetypes of maleness. Some of these archetypes are ancient, some of them I’ve made up. Sometimes I’ve found the representational archetype of my sitter through dreaming about him, from reading, or deep personal thought.

By depicting emblematic aspects and symbols of nature and animals, I am also exploring man’s connection to the world and to nature. Again, many of these symbols come through dreams, or subconscious or intuitive knowledge. I’ve chosen these natural archetypal symbols that best fits the personality or story of the sitter.

I think the modern man is a real problem for our society since both men and women, don’t know what the modern man is supposed to be. Is he the one we laugh at – the stereotypical fool character of modern sitcoms and in popular culture, always outwitted by his dominant wife and bratty children? Or is he the one we fear and loathe – the terrible, untrustworthy pig who beats his wife and small animals, cheats, destroys the environment, and rapes women?

These are obviously two extremes, but I feel it is worth exploring, because though many women say the future is female, I don’t think there will be much of a future for society if men are left out and if men are not a healthy, contributing part of that society.

Damian Osborne

Art is about sharing..

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