Passionate street artist pursuing positive change through art
“Your environment can influence you positively or negatively,” says street artist, graphic designer, and animator Rizah Potgieter.
As the co-founder of the S.M-Art organisation which focusses on Supporting Mentorship through Art in all its aspects, Rizah is passionate about sharing his skills with children from impoverished communities and schools. S.M-Art is also involved with feeding schemes and community upliftment and runs a number of creative workshops for youths to help steer them away from the daily negative influences they are faced with in their neighbourhoods. This includes violence, gangsterism, hunger, and unemployment.
Growing up in Mitchells Plain on the Cape Flats in South Africa, Rizah was surrounded by gangsterism and drug smugglers. He had a choice: follow the negative influences or forge his own future despite the almost overwhelming odds against him.
Inspired by images of his favourite cartoon characters, nine-year-old Rizah began sketching.
“In those days, I was copying pictures of Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z,” he recalls.
Now he’s painting massive murals inspired by nature, communities, and current affairs to help create positive change in impoverished neighbourhoods. As his passion for art grew, he looked for other ‘creatives’ in his neighbourhood that he could learn from.
At 14 years old, Rizah began following the local graffiti artists around but felt he wanted to do better and make a change.
“I would watch them work and pick up tips and techniques,” says Rizah. “There were around 100 artists in my area at that time with truly diverse styles. I was able to learn from some incredible mentors who had vastly different personalities in their art. Some were good at doing outlines and straight lines, others focussed on freestyling characters, some did backgrounds. I learned from all of them which is why my own style is so diverse. I gained skills in every way I could.”
At the age of 16, after following the graffiti artists around for two years, Rizah picked up his first spray can and never looked back. “I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family, so I did odd jobs for neighbours to save up for my paint. I cut grass and took out trash and saved up to buy some cans. One night, age 16, I snuck out of the house with three bags full of cans and I started ‘tagging’, at the time in question (illegal graffiti). I painted around 50 pieces!” “Ever since that night, I haven’t stopped. I’ve been painting for 19 years now,” he says.
Turning ‘ugly’ spaces into places of beauty
Rizah loves identifying ‘ugly’ spaces – where gangsters have left their tags on walls, or where the outsides of buildings are dirty and crumbling due to neglect. “Your environment can influence you positively or negatively,” says Rizah. “Usually, ‘ugly’ spaces have a negative impact on those who see them, and people tend to reflect what they see. But I view this as an opportunity to change the perception. I create art in these spaces that not only educates people on positive topics, but also creates a sense of appreciation and pride to be living in their communities.”
“But you have to know yourself to express yourself. Otherwise, you will not be able to connect with the community and impact them,” says Rizah. He recalls how his mentors taught him to connect with the people around him to create art that spoke to their situations.
He used this knowledge to create a positive spin on the circumstances through art.
“Growing up, there was a lot of informal graffiti competitions organised by the artists in the area,” recalls Rizah. “They would always say ‘art can’t really be judged’ so if you’re going to do something, do something that connects with the community. If the community is cheering you on, then you win.” This also taught him that the impoverished communities were eager for positive, impactful change.
Giving back through S.M-Art As his reputation grew, Rizah was commissioned to do more work, and eventually entered the commercial market.
One of his proudest moments was when he was asked to paint a mural in the United Arab Emirates.
“It was also my first overseas trip,” recalls Rizah.
After starting out as a graffiti artist, Rizah says he is now predominantly focused on mural art, animation, graphic design, and he’s using his skills and his resources to help give back not only to the community he came from but all impoverished communities he can reach.
In 2018 he co-founded the S.M-Art organisation which focusses on Supporting Mentorship through Art.
“In the impoverished communities, there aren’t any opportunities for kids to enjoy art workshops, or dance classes, or anything creative like that,” says Rizah.
“Our organisation provides workshops for these kids to help keep them away from the negative influences around them.”
Having a registered organisation helps Rizah and his co-founder Zeenat Isaacs secure sponsorships and funding for their workshops.
However, most of their projects are still self-funded.
S.M-Art offers regular art classes, dance classes, poetry workshops, music events, theatre, modelling, agriculture and extreme sports workshops (skating, rollerblading, biking) as well as self-defence courses.
“The kids really love it,” says Rizah. “And the parents appreciate us coming out and being part of the positive growth in the community.”
“There are so many negative influences in these areas. When we go out there and we host art workshops it keeps kids away from the negative. That is why our organisation offers so many diverse options. We have so many things to keep them busy! The workshops will run for a week or a month. We will connect with the kids on a personal level too and get the community leaders involved. It’s had quite a positive impact in keeping kids off the streets and away from negative elements.”
Inspiring change through creativity
Rizah loves sharing his skills and showing kids that you can have a fruitful career in the areas of art and design, and animation.
“As much as the participants learn from me, I learn from them too. The best part about facing challenges as a ‘creative’ is taking on the challenge and finding a way forward.
In life we choose to be negative or positive.” This is how Rizah sees his role as a Changemaker.
“To be a Changemaker is to develop and improvise positive methods to replace the negative with positivity, reshaping and transforming distressed circumstances.”