Finding the light among shadows

Abe Opperman creates whimsical, yet powerful ‘shadow art.’ He spoke to Dominique Valente about why we owe it to ourselves to find the light hiding among the shadows in our lives, and why art is best when we glimpse the soul behind it.

Abe Opperman's art

Abe Opperman spoke to me about the importance of looking for beauty in our everyday lives.

“Living in Johannesburg can be an assault on the senses; it’s equally beautiful, busy, and violent, and at times oppressive,” says Abe Opperman, the celebrated artist who has achieved international acclaim. “In such a frenzied place it can be difficult to see or appreciate those ordinary moments of beauty, yet it is precisely those everyday moments that can make all the difference. Finding beauty in the unexpected is what drives my art.”


For Opperman, his art is a reflection of the childhood he had, as well as the one he sometimes yearns for again. Growing up on a farm in the Free State, he says there was a sense of freedom, space, and the unhurried joy of life lived in the slow lane. “My father’s best friend was an artist who had this wonderful old Victorian studio, and some of my best memories as a child were of learning to paint there.”


Later on Opperman enrolled in a fine arts degree, but soon became very unhappy. “When you study art, it’s easy to get pushed in a certain direction because it’s the only one that is taken seriously. At the time it was very popular to do political or angst-driven art; choosing to do something because it was ‘popular’ just wasn’t me — it fundamentally went against the reason I wanted to be an artist. For me art is about sharing a personal experience.”

And while some of the things we experience can be hard or painful, it is how we choose to deal with them that can transform us, says Opperman, whose first exhibition, entitled Flight, was inspired after he began to deal with his fear of flying. He says that he taught himself to let go of his fear by embracing the freedom it gave him. By using images from his childhood where freedom and delight came from movement — such as a child on a swing; or a dog chasing a ball, he began to change his own definition of flight.

Abe Opperman art

“Life is like that, it’s a mix of light and shadow; and I’ve trained myself to look wherever I can for the light hiding in the shadows.” For Opperman, it is for this reason that he believes that people respond to his work. “I try to approach my work with a level of honesty by painting things inspired by moments I have experienced or witnessed, with beauty at the heart of it.”

It is this focus that is a big driver in the volume of work he creates. “I think that it’s easy to be prolific when you are doing what you enjoy. That being said, I sometimes think that people need to give themselves permission to do so. I believe that when we have something within us that we are compelled to do – a passion for art, writing, business, sport — whatever it is — it comes from somewhere within and we owe it to ourselves to at least explore it, and if we can do this from a honest place that is based on love for what we do, you’re half way there.

Opperman says that when he’s painting, he’s not worrying about whether someone will like it. “I create what moves me. Afterwards I hope that others will like what I’ve created — but it’s not what motivates my art — and I don’t think it should. Not just with me but with everything we do,  I think people respond to things — whether that’s a novel, a piece of art, playing an instrument or sport, or even running a business, when they glimpse the soul behind it.”

First published in