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

He once came to a party at my house, around 2003. I had invited lots of artists; George Hallett came with Gavin Jantjes who was in town from Norway. Mingling in the art-world was not Grada’s mission. Instead he held a singing audition in the kitchen. By the end of the night he had convinced Odette, who had not sang in decades, to perform again. He hooked her up with Heather – whom he had also met in the kitchen. I found him stretched out on a mattress on the stoep the next morning – drinking coffee and eating Turkish Delight. He looked very pleased with himself. Odette sang in Heather’s band the following weekend.   

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 business with him 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 moved to South Africa in the early 1990’s, fleeing the war in former Yogoslavia. He brought his homeland in his heart. Upstairs was his Bohemia.

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 no information other than the contours of the face in the photograph. I know of one title, Chess Champion.

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 another layer of mystique to the prints and how he created an emotive mood.  

His painting process was not reductive, it was not to conceal anything. It was additive. It was how he added another layer of mystique to the prints and how he created an emotive mood.  

Later on 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 pieces of dried driftwood that he collected, or on any oddly shaped piece of wood that he found. A collection of these woodblocks were shown at Photo LA in 2006. He titled the collection Gifts from Africa.

In 2007 we called me to a meeting in his lounge, upstairs at Venken Lane to discuss his upcoming solo exhibition. He asked me to take a photograph, as he was, sitting in his chair. After he approved the image, he shared the detail of this upcoming project which he had titled Show Time. It required the installation of a temporary studio in my gallery, as well as a replication of his lounge – just like the picture I had taken. He wanted a place for his friends to gather and a place to meet prospective clients for this evolving project. The public was invited to have their portraits taken and, if they wanted to, become a part of the exhibition. I agreed to all the conditions including his request for regular fresh flowers during the run of the show. 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.

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.

South Africa in the mid-1990’s was deeply entangled in the formulation of a new 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 photographs form an important part of the canon of contemporary South African photography but his ‘nationless’ portraits are not included in museum collections in South Africa because he wasn’t South African. Instead, they have found homes in private collections the world over. He always signed his prints with his full name with a long and dragged out letter G and D. He always smiled when he signed his prints, because that was when they finally became an artwork produced by him.

He also left a deep mark in the music scene with the success of his beloved Kolo Novo Movie Band. He had managed to expand a sound that he created in his Bohemia upstairs in Venken Lane into a movement called Balkanology. There is a melancholy to some of his songs – a longing for a place. He had made a life in an adopted country, but perhaps he ever stopped longing for his homeland. It was a place he left because he had to, not because he wanted to. Listen here.

There is a melancholy to some of his songs – a longing for a place. He had made a life in an adopted country, but perhaps he ever stopped longing for his homeland. It was a place he left because he had to, not because he wanted to. 

Grada Djeri, photographer by Jorge Rubia.

Grada Djeri & Jorge Rubia was hosted at my new 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.

Grada Djeri, Untitled.
Grada in his lounge, 2007.