South African author-illustrator Niki Daly’s spontaneous seeming illustrations are in fact the product of endless try-outs. It is only after what he describes as ‘sifting through a neurotic casting session’ that he finally feels able to fix upon an image that he finds completely satisfying. And looking at the finished pictures, they are indeed full of characters who seem to have been caught just that instant in their most typical mood, movement or situation. As a writer, Daly skilfully mixes South African dialect words with orthodox English in a way that comes over as entirely accessible both to his large audiences overseas and at home. As a man, he is extremely generous, selling off his artwork at knock-down prices and constantly at hand whenever there is a chance to do something for books in his native country. Over here recently for a visit, he is also a delight to interview.
Born in Cape Town in 1946, Niki lived in a poor area and had an alcoholic father. Leaving school early, he studied art in the evenings while working as a clerk. But he always received encouragement from the rest of his family, both as an artist and as a talented musician. The urban landscapes found in his picture books reflect the best of his childhood impressions of a time and place where everyone knew everyone else and shared a general feeling of respect and affection. The less happy memories have not so far entered into his work save perhaps for My Dad (1995), a picture book about a father who lets down his child by turning up drunk at a school concert. Niki still craves the chance to produce darker picture books every now and again; a wish so far resisted by his publishers.
His major breakthrough came with Not So Fast Songololo (1985), a lovely story where a succession of minor events finally amount to one of those magical days that its young main character is never going to forget. Little Songololo is asked by his grandmother Gogo to go shopping with her. His job is to help her cross the roads since she is now at the stage where ‘that little green man mixes me up’. In a shop window, Songololo sees some bright red ‘tackies’ (trainers), and wishes he had them instead of his old, broken down pair. Witnessing this urgent but unexpressed desire, Gogo buys them for him with what little money she has left. Now Songololo ‘feels so happy that it hurts him just to sit still’. His experience is not so far from Niki’s own childhood, where he was once so delighted when his own grandmother replaced his old, sole-flapping shoes with some new ones that he kept them under his pillow as he slept. Niki is not entirely content with this book now. ‘I can draw so much better these days.’ But details apart, all the qualities that make him such an outstanding writer and artist are here in this book. Songololo looks out at the world in a permanently open and interested way. Around him people of all colours and degrees of wealth hurry by in streets bright with advertisements and shop displays, making the point that Songololo lives in a modern, multi-cultural country without ever labouring the fact. Gogo herself is noble and dignified, in her vastness looking as if she is carved out of rock. The love shared between her and Songololo is obvious for all to see.
Niki’s most famous picture book was still to come. Jamela’s Dress (1999) features another lively seven-year-old black South African child. Her smartly turned-out mother (fathers are rare in Niki’s picture books, and there are none here) buys some brightly coloured African print fabric to make a dress for a wedding. But Jamela, captivated by the beauty of the cloth, drapes it around her shoulders and takes a triumphal walk through the neighbourhood. Cheered on by shopkeepers and local children, she does not notice that the material is getting torn and dirty along the way. Back home she is in disgrace, since there is no money left over for more cloth. But a happy ending sees peace restored between mother and daughter, both of whom look their best when the wedding takes place.
Ever critical, Niki worries that he may not always have drawn Jamela the same size in each picture – a technical problem he has overcome in succeeding titles about this now popular heroine. But the most important parts of this picture book are unfailingly right. Jamela’s intoxication with the colour and texture of the red and yellow cloth is brought home by her look of rapture as she rubs her cheek against it while following its patterns with her finger. Her moment of all-consuming pride as she marches down the street is summed up by her stately, upright gait as she leaves shops, houses, chickens, dogs and the rest of the busy street’s population behind in her wake.
Her state of contrition afterwards is made equally obvious, with her whole body, as Niki puts it, becoming a gesture in itself. But this is mostly a story about vitality, with Jamela dancing across the page, joyful at being alive. Children unable to read the simple text can still follow the story through its swirling, vibrant pictures. And everywhere there are signs of the new South Africa , from a picture of Mandela in the fabric shop to the assortment of traditional art and modern artefacts on the walls of Jamela’s house.
In her latest story, Where’s Jamela? (2004) our heroine is shown moving to the leafier suburbs. I asked Niki why. ‘I began to feel uncomfortable portraying black townships when I myself live in Mowbray, Cape Town , which is a mixed area. I just wanted the luxury of peering out of doors and recording what’s going on around me now. Mowbray has also over the years increasingly become the place where I have been picturing Jamela, and her new house is in fact mine. She herself was named after a neighbour’s daughter, now an adult. So while Not So Fast Songololo was my first picture book to include a black child in an urban setting, my latest work is simply taking the child into the suburbs instead.’
Some black activists have accused Niki of depicting urban poverty without also trying to explain its stubborn persistence. He has little time for such criticism. ‘I wanted to come out with a picture book, not some ghastly political tract. I also didn’t want to produce a miserable book for children – I just can’t see the point. My own working-class childhood had some super moments, with sisters, aunts and others all caring for me while also managing to stay happy in themselves. There were moments too when I used to feel unloved and abandoned and would dream of doing deals with God to take me out of all this. But these dreams were also a different way of getting away at the time, in the same way that my characters do when they get caught up in their fantasies.’
A good example of this process can be found in Charlie’s House (1989), with a text by Reviva Schermbrucker that describes a township child living with his mother and grandmother in a leaky shelter made from corrugated iron and scrap. From the surrounding rubbish, Charlie turns a matchbox into an imaginary television set, a milk carton into a refrigerator and finally makes a car out of mud. He can now dream about driving away altogether, while still aware of and benefiting from the loving family bonds surrounding him. Although never denying the reality of his poverty, Niki’s illustrations show poignantly how dreams can both compensate for present reality and sometimes provide the dreamer with the necessary determination one day to find something better.
Niki has also produced picture books far from the hustle and bustle of modern South African urban life. For The Dancer (1996), with a text by Nola Turkington, he developed his own versions of the figures found in the rock paintings of the ancient bushmen. Avoiding pastiche but taking his inspiration from these magical drawings, this is a fine achievement, although there was some anxiety about how an American audience would react to the sight of bare breasts, however stylised.
Bravo Zan Angelo! (1998) is a superbly illustrated story about a Commedia Dell’Arte company in eighteenth-century Venice . Crammed with masks and carnival costumes, it bears comparison with the work of Edward Ardizzone in its artful use of detail set against the backdrop of the most beautiful city in the world. Fly, Eagle, Fly! (2000), with a text by Christopher Gregorowski, is a parable involving scenes from the African countryside at its most mysterious and immense. First illustrated in two colours by Niki in 1982, this re-issued full colour version now has a foreword by Archbishop Tutu and is dedicated to the children of South Africa . There will be less preliminary artwork from Niki in the future, since he is currently making greater use of computers, experimenting directly on the screen and then selecting from the rich colours on offer. Will this mean the end of his watercolour washes, with their own distinctive brand of understated brightness?
‘Watercolours do seem out of fashion at the moment, unable to make the same impact as more saturated types of art. It is also wonderful to be able to communicate so directly with my art editor in London . I used to hate the business of posting my work in parcels and then worrying whether it would arrive intact.’ Fans will surely hope that the gentle colours and atmospheric backgrounds to his artwork in the forty picture books he has produced so far, over half with an accompanying text by himself, will be preserved long into the future. But the affectionate, optimistic humanism that has always made his work such a particular treat looks certain to stay, as this most charming of author-illustrators prepares himself once again to produce two further picture books each year.
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University .
The Books (published by Frances Lincoln unless otherwise stated)
Jamela’s Dress, 0 7112 1449 2, £5.99 pbk, 1 84507 347 9, £15.99 big book
What’s Cooking Jamela?, 0 7112 1705 X, £5.99 pbk
Where’s Jamela?, 1 84507 031 3, £10.99 hbk (1 84507 106 9, £5.99 pbk, May 2005)
The Boy on the Beach, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 4684 3, £5.99 pbk
Bravo Zan Angelo!, 0 7112 1277 5, £5.99 pbk
The Dancer, text by Nola Turkington, 0 7112 1541 3, £5.99 pbk
Fly, Eagle, Fly!, text by Christopher Gregorowski, 0 7112 1690 8, £10.99 hbk, 0 7112 1730 0, £5.99 pbk
Not So Fast Songololo, 0 7112 1765 3, £5.99 pbk
Once Upon a Time, 0 7112 1958 3, £10.99 hbk, 1 84507 019 4, £5.99 pbk
One Round Moon and a Star for Me, text by Ingrid Mennen, 1 84507 024 0, £10.99 hbk, 1 84507 025 9, £5.99 pbk
Ruby Sings the Blues, 1 84507 099 2, £10.99 hbk (March 2005)
My Dad and Charlie’s House are not available in the UK.