Sign In
Art journey of a futurist
Dated: Thursday, May 4, 2017
​Michael Lee, a Capetonian writer and futurist who holds an MPhil in Future Studies from USB, writes in this article that the disciplines of art and foresight can teach us to see life in a new light. "What the futurist and artist have in common is a creative approach to life," he says. He recently exhibited 60 original art works at the "A Bridge of Light" exhibition at the V&A Waterfront. Read his article.

​Art has a high calling. At its best, it can inspire the viewer to see more clearly, feel more vividly, think more deeply and even to live more fully. That's due to the capacity which painted images, and other works of visual art, can possess to challenge and change our perceptions about reality and culture. For the visual artist, art is all about the design of compelling images and forms.  But for the viewer, a perceptual experience takes place which involves deep personal interpretation. This is where there's scope for a change in perceptual awareness to take place while viewing art. Strong art can be experienced and felt at both cognitive and emotional levels. When perceptions are stimulated and awakened, that is when consciousness can change.


Having recently exhibited 60 original art works at the "A Bridge of Light" exhibition at the V&A Waterfront and having spoken to dozens of international and local visitors about their views on the works they enjoyed, my belief in the power of art has been reaffirmed. An artist from Zimbabwe told me (and wrote in my guest book): "Something inside me moved".  It was a moment of genuine connection. I was also amazed when two little girls, aged about nine, one black child and one white child living in the same family, showed an appreciation of art way beyond what one would expect to find in their age group. One of them proudly told me how she'd just finished her first sketch book and I urged her to keep it as she moves on to the next one. And I was struck by how Einstein (see World 111 below) continues to be much loved by young and old alike, and by people of all cultures. Over 50 years after his death he has passed into a global icon of humanity and science.


World 111 (oils) 2016



1953 (oils)  2011


In the 1953 painting, Einstein's theoretical breakthroughs and his impact on the world are symbolically represented. He discovered that the speed of light is the one absolute phenomenon in the world, and that everything else is relative, including space and even time itself. There's a clock on the tower of the main building at the Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study in the background to embody time. The strong light beams above show light's dominance in the physical world. Two cars are in motion in front of the buildings, as is the figure of Einstein, to refer to the idea in relativity that spatial and temporal factors change when objects are in motion. Time itself is continuously in motion as everything is travelling through time in the ageing process. The illuminated path in the snow represents his journey of understanding and the crack in the ground where he walks symbolises the dislocation of old ideas his theory superseded.


The important point here is that visual images on canvas can communicate underlying messages to the viewer irrespective of background, age, gender or level of literacy, reaching their senses, minds and hearts directly. A viewer who doesn't know Einstein's theory of relativity can still sense that this was a scholar whose ideas shed lots of light on the world.


Oil painting for me is making pictures which provoke the viewer's perception. Unlike spoken and written human languages, art is a universal language and that is one key reason why I am persuaded that it needs to embrace a higher calling as one of the most important communication media.


Art can:

  • Provide aesthetic pleasure; evoking wonder
  • Convey messages and meaning
  • Communicate knowledge
  • Share a value or ideal
  • Change perceptions
  • Raise awareness

Take this protest painting I painted about weapons of mass destruction, showing the desolation which resulted following the dropping of the world's first atom bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945.


A-Bomb Orphan (oils) 2016


This picture shows a Japanese boy arriving at a funeral pyre to bury his baby brother who has died in the nuclear attack. He is dwarfed by the flames and smoke and, despite the horror of what he has just witnessed, his home and city lying in ruins all around, the boy stands to attention to do his duty, a sense of honour undefeated in his wounded soul. I based this image on an actual photograph taken in the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima attack. That young boy in the photo was a hero of that catastrophic Pacific war between America and Japan.


Today, there are over 23 000 nuclear weapons and the threat of a nuclear war is very much alive. If art can convey a visceral sense of waste and destruction by representing the bombing as an abnormal, abhorrent act of war, it may bring home the concept that atomic bombs should never be used in war by mankind.


It's clear that a nuclear holocaust remains a real future threat to our survival. While the picture A-bomb Orphan may encapsulate the unacceptable human cost of nuclear attacks, a futurist may write a paper analysing the scale of this threat today, identifying hotspots where the risk is at its highest, such as in the case of North Korea or Iran. Scenarios can be developed which evoke a cognitive sense of the dangers we're facing. In this way, the artist and the futurist may work towards a common goal of influencing public and political policy in the right direction.


The word scenario was, in fact, taken from the movie industry, referring to scenes in the storyboard which are to be captured on film. Like the screenplay writer, the futurist can paint mental pictures of future possibilities and probabilities. One of the world's first futurists was science fiction writer HG Wells who wrote his great non-fictional work Anticipations in 1901 to share a vision of how he foresaw the rest of the 20th century unfolding. He described how the century would be dominated by new transport systems based on motorisation and aviation.


We can look back and say that these specific long-range predictions were spot on. By contrast, his novels of future technologies and conflicts create large-scale scenarios for us to enjoy. For Wells, the futurist and the artist were working towards a common goal of raising public awareness of how technology would continue to shape society – either for good or evil.


Like a painter's blank canvas, the future is open to possibility. In the space of the future we can be free to imagine and to think in fresh ways about our world and our lives. What the futurist and artist have in common is a creative approach to life. Probably, they are just different forms of the same spirit of adventure. Humans are unique in having an evolutionary ability for mental time travel – travel to the past through memories and travel into the future through imagination and anticipation. Futurists are essentially licensed time travellers.  Certainly, for me, creating art works and developing future scenarios are both visionary activities. 


The artist, too, is an explorer of past, present and, to a lesser extent, future realities. For example, 2017 represents the 50th anniversary year of the world's first human heart transplant, which took place at Groote Schuur hospital during the night of 3 December 1967. I have commemorated this phenomenal South African achievement in both book form and in painting.  Heartbeat (50th anniversary special edition) is a documentary novel recreating this extraordinary medical and human drama in extensive detail, while 50 years is a portrait in monochrome of Prof Chris Barnard alongside his brother Dr Marius Barnard, united once again as they were half a century ago for the ground-breaking, world-changing operation. 


As a futurist, I believe in the principle of the continuity of time (past, present and future) so that the future always emerges from its embedded conditions which have evolved from the past. There is no disconnection whatsoever between future and past. That is one of humanity's most dangerous myths, rooted in the disillusionment about progress and science shamelessly purveyed by post-modernism in Western culture. This temporal disconnect has led to disorientation and a suffocating general uncertainty about the future. By commemorating the innovations of Chris and Marius Barnard in the late 1960s in Heartbeat and 50 Years, I wish only to encourage the search for future innovations and breakthroughs which can transform the world for the better, following a positive evolutionary trajectory.


In art, there's a drive to connect to the viewer, to share a moment of truth, a vision, an ideal, an idea, a perception. In study of the future, there's a similar urge to influence thinking to move policymakers and people in a positive direction or, at the very least, to move them away from dangers lurking in the short, medium or long term. Whether the communication medium is a picture, a scenario or study of the prospects of a given nation, both activities presuppose connecting with an audience.


Art and the practice of providing foresight promote the acts of seeing and foreseeing respectively. As an artist, I like playing with design, colour, contrast, brushstrokes, lighting, perspective, atmosphere, tone - that is the creative, fun part of painting, while the aim remains to provoke a viewing experience. A futurist, too, enjoys and promotes the act of seeing – this time, seeing ahead in time. At their best, both disciplines can teach us to see life in a new light. Through imagination, we can be transported to other places and other times.  This expands our horizons and improves our chances of survival as a species.


It's important to be original in art and in thinking about the future so that both exercises remain authentic, underpinned by personal integrity. Otherwise the audience won't trust you. The viewing experience will become impersonal, perhaps even trivial. Regarding being original, you'll notice the style of the painting A-bomb Orphan above is monochrome, or colourless. In my journey to stay original in style and content, I have used two other styles in addition to monochrome: soft colour works (ones employing one or two dominant colours applied lightly to create a soft effect) and full colour art. Monochrome is the hardest because there's no colour to play with and the artist needs to use tone, contrast and lighting to create striking effects and atmospheres. I originally experimented with monochrome as I have so often admired black and white photography and enjoyed film noir and other classic black and white movies. My first successful effort was New Orleans Nocturne which depicts a ghostly night scene in the city after the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina had subsided, generating an atmosphere of loneliness.



New Orleans Nocturne (oils) 2006


Below is another blue-grey painting, this time based on an old black and white photograph of a couple driving through Chapman's Peak in the 1920s.



Grandeur (oils) 2008


While the futurist looks ahead in time and sees landscapes of the future in his/her mind, art can bottle a moment in time like this timeless moment from the past, just as evocative photography does. However, the art carries, in my view, a stronger element of personal interpretation than a photo and one can therefore expect a more interpretative engagement with the viewer.


A lot of the artist goes into his/her art and only a little gets into the audience. Certainly, a big chunk of me goes into both my study of the future and my art work. It takes a strong push to move a lever that can shift something in the world. Even if a little bit of me passes over into a viewer, or a reader, however, whether it was the appreciative Zimbabwean artist at my exhibition or the two little girls who have an appreciation for art one would only expect from a teenager or young adult, then that exchange becomes a massive privilege which makes all the hard work worthwhile. For that means that a genuine connection has been established between two strangers in the service of the truths and insights which may improve the world, however marginally.


Contact Michael at if you want to engage further.​