Grada Djeri (1956 – 2014) had a very deep voice that belied his slight build, and he spoke English with a hard, gravelly accent. It was as if words were heavy objects that he needed to haul, with great effort from deep inside himself. His face was gaunt and framed by a set of dark bushy eyebrows; it completely changed when he smiled. When Grada smiled it was an all-in emotion – even his eyes lit up like lights. The briefest encounter with him left an impression – an indelible experience.

In 2003 I hosted an end-of-year party at my home. The guestlist were a mix of friends, artists and musicians. The now late photographer George Hallett brought along artist/curator Gavin Jantjes who was in town from Norway. Instead of mingling with art crowd Grada held a singing audition in the kitchen. By the end of the evening he had convinced Odette R, who had not sung in decades, to perform again. I found him stretched out on a mattress on the stoep the next morning – sipping coffee and eating Turkish Delight. He looked very pleased with himself. Odette R performed in Heather Mac’s band (whom Grada had also met in the kitchen) the following weekend.   

Upstairs in Bohemia

For a long time Grada lived in a narrow three-story building in Venken Lane, just off Long Street in Cape Town. His studio and his darkroom, set up in the kitchen, was on the ground floor. That was where he worked and received his clients. The two upper floors were his living space. They were private. As his gallerist I conducted my business my downstairs. On a few rare occasions I was invited up that steep flight of stairs and into his sacred space. Upstairs was where he kept his musical instruments, where he blended Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and the Balkan regions into one, and created a totally unique sound. Grada was born in Serbia. He moved to South Africa in the early 1990’s, fleeing the war in former Yugoslavia. He brought his homeland in his heart. Upstairs was his Bohemia.

He made photographs….

He had studied painting at the Academy of Fine Art in Belgrade but found a career in photography. He never abandoned his love for painting – he just made it part of his practice in photography. His style of image-making was unique, and his approach to photography was as unconventional as the music he made. In the early 1990’s he photographed only outsiders, people like him, who were not from South Africa. His sitters became his community and he kept this community closed and private. He never titled those gender-fluid portraits he made, and they revealed any information other than the contours of the face in the photograph. I know of one title, Chess Champion – a close-up study of a face surrounded by a very big hat.

Taking a photograph played a small part in his process, though. The way in which he developed his photographs, by painting the developer on the paper, was the important step. This was done on the kitchen floor because of the (large) size of the prints. He washed the prints using a hosepipe that he disconnected from the washing machine and hung them on his washing line to dry. His painting process was not reductive, it was not to conceal anything. It was additive. It was how he added layers of mystique to his images. South Africa in the mid to late-1990’s (when I met Grada) was deeply entangled in the formulation of a new national imaginary, it was an inward-looking process. Rainbowism did not include those who knew the words of an anthem from elsewhere. Grada Djeri’s unique collection of painterly portraits form an important part of the canon of contemporary South African photography however because he was not South African, his works are not represented in any South African museum collection. Instead, they have found homes in private collections the world over. 

Later, he used the same technique for his landscape studies, including an image of the Twin Towers which he photographed in 2000. He took ownership of this painterly style and it became his signature. He also printed images onto blocks of wood, or pieces of dried driftwood that he collected. A collection of these woodblocks, titled Gifts from Africa were shown at the Photo LA art fair in 2006. 

In 2007 Grada summoned me to a meeting at Venken Lane to discuss an upcoming solo exhibition. The first thing he asked me was to take a photograph of him, as he was, sitting in his chair. After he approved the framing he proceeded to share the detail of the project titled Show Time. It required the installation of a temporary photo booth in the gallery, as well as a replication of a corner of his lounge – just like the picture I had taken. I agreed to all the conditions including his request for regular fresh flowers. For the duration of that exhibition the gallery was Grada’s base; where he met his friends, fellow musicians and prospective clients. Once a week the gallery stayed open late for an intimate concert by Grada and his friends. I know of many people who just happened to walk past the gallery and stayed until the end of these importu concerts. At the end of the run of the exhibition we hosted a finasage, showing the collection of portraits produced during Grada’s residency. It was a sell-out exhibition. 

And he made music….

In Grada’s passing he also left a void in the local music scene where he had made a big impression with his beloved Kolo Novo Movie Band. He had managed to expand a sound that he created in his Bohemia, there upstairs in Venken Lane, into a movement called Balkanology. Grada never stopped longing for his homeland. It was a place he left because he had to, and not because he wanted to. But, he found a sense of belonging in his adopted country through the unique music he made.  

The farewell exhibition

Grada Djeri & Jorge Rubia was hosted at my gallery above the Blah Blah Bar in 2015. Jovana Djeri, Grada’s widow loaned a sample of his work for the exhibition, and Jorge Rubia showed portraits of Grada which he had taken over a number of years. It was a beautiful exhibition and a fitting tribute. Members of the Kolo Nova Movie Band gave a moving concert on the opening night, and for a brief moment, it felt like he was among us, again.

A small range of Grada’s photographs are included in the Being Present group exhibition which is scheduled to open on 28 January 2024 at Glen Carlou in Paarl, South Africa.