Whirligig of colour and possibility: A tribute to Adam Levin



FIERCE queer warrior: Adam Levin. Photograph courtesy Design Indaba.

HE COULD WRITE like a demon, had an eye for startling design that worked on the body and in interiors in unique ways and was a passionate traveller with much to say. This was the inimitable Adam Levin, known for his easy smile and his ability to empathise. He was taken by a pulmonary embolism on 31 May 2019. He was 50.

Levin’s interest in human society, in particular, and culture in general was evident from the get-go. Born in Cape Town on 9 January 1969, the eldest of three children, he read for an honours degree in Anthropology at the University of Cape Town, graduating in 1991. He then travelled through Africa to imbue himself in the visual culture specific to Morocco, Mozambique and Ethiopia, styling himself as a fashion designer and a writer based on the magic he was exposed to in these countries.

The son of enthusiastic travellers – architect Lionel Levin and entrepreneur Louella Levin – during his formative years, Levin had the chance to live in Singapore, Hong Kong and London. Levin’s mother worked for many years with non-governmental organisations in South Africa and Israel and at Trade Roots, a Cape-Town business that imported contemporary fabrics and produced locally designed goods.

His childhood home was an environment full of art – the Levins were significant collectors of objets d’art from western and central Africa and South Africa’s Cape Dutch genre, as well as furniture from Asia – and the beauty and poetry of colours and textures rubbed off on him. He started to write and illustrate his own work as a seven year old, and it was then that he made his first story book: “Milly and Mandy”.

He grew up to enjoy a particular interest in the works of Nigerian-born Yinka Shonibare and El Anatsui, from Ghana. Playing with colonialist canons in beautifully printed fabric in the sculptural sphere, both of these artists balance controversy with magnificence. Levin’s 2012 exhibition at the Plascon Spaces Showroom at the Design Indaba, entitled A Meal of Colour attested to the influences of both of these African giants in terms of his unprecious juxtapositions of all kinds of details. This was about consuming the magic of colour rather than “just making things bright”, as Levin put it.

But the visual energy which pours from the African continent was not all that kept Levin enthusiastic. A lover of the French language, he also had a passion for Kabuki theatre, a Japanese traditional art form, where the performers use exaggerated gestures and wear intricately designed costumes and distinctive make-up. It was, as Andrew Chandler comments in his Mambaonline obituary for Levin, about Levin’s proclivity to “expertly poke fun at the drama in others”.

An experimental chef, Levin treated his home in the Johannesburg suburb of Parktown North as a design project and would often remove and rebuild walls as the whim grabbed him. But he enjoyed a catholic taste in literature and music, and everything from tribal to world music, South American tunes and the sound of Iceland’s Björk tickled his fancy. Not to mention his passion for avant-garde film.

Levin lived life in full. As a 19-year-old, he wrote a self-reflexive article entitled “Waddayagonnadowithyourlife?”, in which he articulately explains why he could not and would not ever answer this question, because the world out there was too full of magic to follow just one path.

“I am so excited about the vast possibilities that lie ahead of me that I cannot and will not commit myself, or pretend that I have made a decision already,” the teen Levin said. It was a mindset which might have been articulated in his youth, but one which he held fast to, always experimenting and learning.

Many of Levin’s talents came together in the phenomenon of the Fashion Week, a sponsored clothing design festival that happens annually all over the world. He commented critically on the world’s Fashion Weeks for publications of the ilk of Elle magazine, the Netherlands-based Dutch, and Style, a Johannesburg lifestyle magazine.

But that was not all. Levin wrote three books: The Wonder Safaris (Struik: 2003), a collection of his travelogues through 20 African countries; The Art of African Shopping (Struik: 2005), an autobiographical documentary about trading African art and craft, and exploring Africa’s heritage of textiles, jewellery, sculpture, fashion, music and food; and Aidsafari (Zebra Press: 2005). In the latter, Levin candidly describes what it is to live with Aids, which he discovered he had, in 2003. This book became an HIV/Aids awareness tool and motivated those living with the illness to live positively. Featuring Levin’s characteristic sense of linguistic rhythm, wit and wisdom, it bagged him the coveted Alan Paton Prize in 2006.

Stubborn in the face of terrible provocations and compassionate to a fault, Levin did not want to be only remembered by his struggle with Aids, but also by what he accomplished. He commented: “I wanted to be seen as an author living with Aids rather than a person living with Aids who decides to write a book”.

And he was unstoppable. In 1999 he started a retail outlet in Johannesburg called Soul Trading, which dealt in handmade craft from countries in West Africa, as well as Morocco, Indonesia and China. He was also involved in product development and designed African accessories and handbags for the American market.

During a 2005 Fashion Week, he presented a summit on Afro-futurism called “South is the New North”. Three years later, he was fashion director of Miss World and Miss South Africa, a position which he held for three years. During this timeframe he opened a global homeware store, Imagine Nation, which stocks items from India, Indonesia, Morocco, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Thailand and South Africa.

Living with Aids was not the only challenge Levin faced. In the early 2000s, the South African gay sub-culture was very much in its infancy and ghettoised. His ability to swan effortlessly through several milieux – ones considered salubrious and others, not – rendered him “a fierce Queer Warrior with a surfeit of fearlessness”, according to Chandler who acknowledged how deeply admired Levin was in the gay community of the time, for this urbanely celebratory and refreshing attitude.

Levin leaves his parents Lionel and Louella Levin, his sisters Cathi and Allison, many friends and thousands of people whose lives he touched with his words and ideas.

  • Saskia Hertell-Moraloki is a first year Fine Arts student at the University of Pretoria. She is part of the VIT 101 class, being taught the rudiments of arts writing by Robyn Sassen during 2020.

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