What James Bhemgee's story teaches us about the mistreatment of SA artists

Lester Kiewit spoke to Marlene le Roux - CEO at Artscape Theatre, about the life of James Bhemgee and what his death reveals about how the country neglects its artists.

SA's Got Talent winner James Bhemgee, a Mowbray resident with a remarkable come-up story which saw him rise from street sweeper to celebrated opera performer, died from a heart attack last week.

The 57-year-old singer won season two of the hit local talent show in 2010, and had been performing on both big and small stages across the globe, releasing album My Victory in 2012.

Following his win, Bhemgee caught the attention of the country but later fell from the spotlight, ultimately dying in poverty after battling a chronic health condition for years.

Although CEO at Artscape Theatre - Marlene le Roux says that Bhemgee inspired many through his regular performances for locals through Artscape, his story opens up an important conversation about the treatment of artists in the country.

Le Roux recalls that Bhemgee would perform for an Artscape programme that brought theatre to the people and helped show young people that they could make it in the industry as artists, regardless of their circumstances.

The circumstances of the opera star's story, however, reveal a huge problem that artists face - who often suffer from poor economic conditions because of the lack of financial support from the country's relevant institutions, especially during periods when they haven't been performing for periods of time.

There's a bigger aspect that we also need to tackle and I think we need to open it and we need to discuss it... an artist would earn money [but] how do we nurture the artists to say 'what are you going to do with the money?' because the artist lives from hand-to-mouth and that is the essentials that we need to look at.

Marlene le Roux, CEO - Artscape Theatre

Bhemgee's story is a difficult reminder that we need to reframe how we look at artists, specifically regarding (the lack of) funding, especially for artists who do not have anything else to fall back on or if they do not work for a company.

We don't see our artists as professionals. They are not signed up. So, they don't have something to fall back when they don't perform during a particular period and this is happening to artists like Bhemgee.

Marlene le Roux, CEO - Artscape Theatre

Listen to the full interview above.

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