Introducing Cai Arfon Bellis

Words By Maisie Goulsbra

As we trundle through our second lockdown, it feels like a faraway millennium to the time that crowds got sweaty down in basements around London, equipped with only a pair of gun fingers. ‘Sweaty’ is one of the remarks Cai Arfon Bellis has received from his paintings that are derived predominantly from London’s grime nights.

Cai’s work might be described as contemporary figurativism. He works in his studio in Lewisham – a converted food processing warehouse – that he shares with other artists. A mixture of creatives, some of whom are filmmakers and dancers, giving Cai a chance to divert focus from pictorial-centred discussion, to conversation focused less on process and more about where his art comes from and what he is trying to express.

‘Bring ur Crew Then’ By Cai Arfon Bellis

Cai studied at Slade School of Art on the fine art programme, where he specialised in painting. Whilst studying at Slade, Denzil Forrester came in to give an inspiring lecture. Around this time, Cai acknowledged that his love and involvement with music could be incorporated into his art more than he had anticipated. “It was this really lovely moment I had during the lecture when I realised, I can just paint the things that I love, and that I’m really interested in”.  Cai talks about Forrester’s work in the seventies and eighties. About his relationship with the dancehall and reggae scene, and his connection to Jah Shaka. In some ways, Cai tells me, he is more passionate about music than art.

It’s difficult to put Cai’s work in a category with other visual artists, certainly of the same medium, because his subject matter is heavil affiliated with music, it seems almost inaccurate to separate him from this. German expressionists such as Rainer Fetter have provided influence, as have pop surrealists like Peter Saul and Jim Shaw. Perhaps most importantly, Cai compares his working process to Jean-Michel Basquiat. He talks about the notion of an ‘echo-chamber’ referring to Basquiat’s studio as an extension of his mind.

“He [Basquiat] developed this coded language. You can pick apart these things in the work if you’re privy to the process. It’s interesting because people can read the work very differently.”

Cai’s subject matter might usually be documented via photography, which was an elemental tool in his earlier works. He would build what he calls photo-montages. “I would take a number of photos that I had taken from a night, overlay them in photoshop and give them a white balance effect or a double exposure effect. If you look at some of my earlier work that tends to be why they’re very hectic. There are these ghostly figures that appear.” Cai says this process was quite rigid and he didn’t have much freedom to translate this image on the canvas. “The photography aspect is partially why I moved away from that process. I wondered what I was bringing by painting these [photo montages].” So now his works tends toward this concept of ‘echo chambering’ where Cai does lots of drawings, lots of small-scale paintings and feeds those into his canvas. He rarely has a pre-plan for how his canvases are going to transpire. The results vary. Not necessarily keeping to a specific style across the board. The composition, palette and colour adjust accordingly. “I see my art as genre paintings in a way. I have my grime paintings, my bass music paintings and my jazz paintings”.

Cai explains – “I’m really into a lot of different types of music. I try and explore most facets of the UK music scene. I spend four or five days of the week going to gigs or nights out. The free promotional communities that are in London – places like Keep Hush, Lockoff or The Pit – are real lifeblood-thriving parts of the music scene. It’s really keeping a lot of it going and making a lot of it exciting. Having access to that, especially when you’re a student and you can’t be splashing fifteen pounds on tickets, four times a week or whatever is really important.”

Grime is perhaps what Cai’s work is most affiliated with though. “Grime is kind of my original love.” He inherited his elder brothers’ mixtapes and DVDs when he was young. Growing up in Catford meant it was always a present essence. At youth clubs every week, spending time in the community, it meant he was around the likes of Novelist, Faultz – The Square crew.

Despite the relationship, Cai reminds me that he isn’t trying to iconographise these figures. “I’m not making portraiture. I’m not trying to make a really good painting of this person, or this MC. I’m trying to capture an essence of them as a performer. I’m trying to capture what it feels like for them to be doing what they’re doing. Or how it feels to be present and watching what they’re doing.”

Cai speaks lovingly and knowingly about the contents of his canvases. “That evolving and developing relationship between the MC, the DJ and the crowd is just so unique. There’s no other experience like that in the live music scene. It’s a weird comparison but it’s like that jazz sensibility – doing solos and feeding off of one another – having a conversation between what’s going on. There’s a circular, evolving relationship, especially when you come to those intimate gigs, at places like Keep Hush. There isn’t a stage separating you, it’s just a circle of like-minded people in a community; a school yard aspect of going around in a circle and spitting a little eight-bar or beatboxing or whatever. It’s such a welcoming and involved process. There’s nothing like it in terms of the intimacy of live music but I’m into most facets of UK dance music. Jungle is another one of my main things. Especially the new resurgence like Woolford [Special Request], Skeptical, and Fixate.”

‘Maximum Carnage’ By Cai Arfon Bellis

Recently, he’s been working more directly with (music) artists. Cai knows the Skinnyville boys and has painted the likes of Mez. He expresses the specific sense of community that the 237 and 98 collectives bring about. Similarly, the atmosphere at the sorts of nights he goes to where artists are not put on a pedestal. They are very often (literally) without stage, in the middle of the crowd. His pieces, which stray away from portraiture, reflect this. Comparing the nights that he mentions to a Kendrick Lamar show he went to a few years ago, Cai isn’t as interested in depicting these kinds of events.

“Accessibility is a really important part of my work – it’s something I try and strive for, without trying to dumb it down. Coming from a place like Catford where not many people around me were particularly interested in going into fine art. I think a lot of that is because there is a built-up perception of inaccessibility that’s an attribute of the art world. I think having accessibility is an important part of making work. Especially when you’re working with subject matter that you feel very passionate about. You feel like you want to be as relatable as possible and get across the ideas as much as possible.”

He continues…

“Although my work is about the music, it’s actually about the crowd, the communal sense of it, and the experience of being there. Once my work was described to me by someone as sweaty, which I really liked. I suppose that’s what I’m striving for. I’ve gotten different responses from my work by different people with different backgrounds. People who aren’t really experienced in the music scenes that I’m trying to represent see quite a lot of aggression in my work or see it as off-putting or standoffish.” His viewers tend to produce a fuller reception of his work if they have an appreciation of where it stems from.

He observes that within these crowds at the nights he attends, he has a simultaneously personal and impersonal relationship with the people around him. “You develop these weird characters. You sort of make these people and build a narrative, but you don’t know their names. You don’t know who they are. You don’t know their background, you don’t know anything, but you know they came and experienced the same things with you for a period of time. You find you have such very, very vivid memories of those people in those videos that I met for what, an hour, four years ago. You remember how they interacted in the crowd and what it was like being in a room with them. That’s an interesting thing to think about. It’s an interesting thing to explore on a canvas. In a crowd you’re all one. You don’t really think about it unless you look back on it. It isn’t something that sticks, until you manage to capture it, or you have videos that you can look back on. I end up reliving the nights every time I do a painting of them.”

“I’m not really into traditional gallerist spaces but it’s kind of what you have to do to survive in that world. This summer I had some things planned which would have been based on integrating with other performers. Something that very much interests me is sharing these spaces. I don’t really like white cubes.” Going forward, Cai is looking to extend the accessibility and community that are attributes to the circles he runs in. That’s likely going to come in the form of smaller scale pieces, and clothing. He’s sold a couple of pieces to people who are involved in the scene, and that means a lot to him. The pieces weren’t bought as investments or as pretty pictures, but because they spoke something to the buyers.

‘LOCKOFF’

“Last words – I’d say support your local promoters, invest in your local scene. Especially now, it’s more important than ever. Do what you can to support people around you because you never know what will happen.” There’s no surprise that Cai’s parting message is so selfless. A definingly characteristic of his work is community and plurality. For representations of this music-orientated energy to exist through the lens of Cai – we have to keep these events adrift. It’s all the more relevant with the looming developments in Brixton, but I don’t doubt that this fire will burn out any time soon. Stay tuned.

Follow Cai’s journey on https://www.instagram.com/caibellisart/