PEOPLE around him judge him harshly for declining to use his talent to dig himself out of a pauper’s life and away from living in his house on wheels — an old Willys Jeep.
But Barry Ratief, who at the pick of his influence enjoyed a fast life of money, women and drugs, laughs it off insisting his life is no longer about pride and self-seeking elements.
If anything, the former security detail of some of the richest drug lords in Holland, wants his art to do the talking and hopefully inspire others who have walked a rugged path.
True to his lifestyle, the free-spirited Barry, who has made the Harare Braeside Shopping Centre parking lot his home for the last six years, is a man who enjoys his privacy despite the bizarreness of his living conditions.
It is only after weeks of small talk at his makeshift home that he finally takes this writer on a roller coaster memory lane.
He pulls out one of his finest works from the hood of his Jeep, before unfolding a painting of a naked woman on a chaise lounge, a bottle of alcohol on the side, two dogs and a Harley Davison motorcycle in tow.
“That was my old life,” he says.
“A lot of people can relate to that, those who grew up in my era during the roaring 70s of Rock and Roll, fast life, good music, free love and no Aids!” he recalls.
“But most of what I do now revolves around my work.”
A taxi driver who patrols the Braeside area says Barry is often approached by high-profile art lovers but consistently turns down thousands of dollars to live the life of guarding a nearby office at night while hiring out a fuel can during the day.
Barry barely has enough to get by, but people’s opinions don’t seem to bother him, insisting his life is now about finding himself and money no longer motivates him.
“I am not looking for work as an artist anymore. I have reached that place where I paint from my heart,” Barry says.
“Every painting I am doing now and for the reminder of my life is significant. I have painted everything there is to paint. From wildlife, people, still life, machines, portraits, landscape you name it.”
Among a host of Barry’s famous pieces is that of the late Joshua Nkomo that hangs at the airport in Bulawayo.
“You can say I put down the rifle to pick up the paint brush,” he says describing how he came to be a painter.
Raised on a farm in Chinhoyi, the thrill-seeking Barry was never far from controversy.
His “old ways” saw him falling foul of the law in the early 70s for illegal possession of marijuana and hijacking, later to be caught in Mozambique and extradited back to Zimbabwe.
Convicted at then Salisbury Central, he drew to pass time and continued after his release.He would travel to Amsterdam in 1978, going on to join a prominent biker group before getting involved in the underworld life of drugs.
“It was only 1986 in Holland when I decided to become a professional artist. Before that I lived another life,” he says.
“I lived a rich life. I was heavy into drugs, there is money in drugs. I worked as a bodyguard for some of the richest drug lords in Europe, lived in a red light district in Holland where there were real life se_x shows.
“I didn’t have to go see the world, the world came to me. I could make $10 000 in a day. I had over a 100 runners distributing cocaine. It’s a hell of story but that is not what I want to talk about. I am interested in telling people about art.”
Whenever, he delves into his past, Barry feels as though talking about it makes him lose his “freedom” but it is never easy to separate the man from his works.
And even as he tries to change the subject, he continues to turn to his experiences as an inspiration to his art.
And so he continues: “I came back in Zimbabwe in 1992 with $160 000 in my pocket,” he says.
“I rented a house and along with Castro (his dog), lived the high life for two years, until Castrol died.”
Devastated by the loss of a pet he called “family”, Barry began to drink heavily and his work deteriorated into what he called “survival art”, painting solely for money.
His life spiralled out of control and became homeless before a friend took him in, beginning his road to recovery.
He later joined Alcoholics Anonymous and began finding strength in “a higher power”.
Threatened by the prospect of being out of the street, without shelter over his head, Barry sold a painting for “half its price” and bought a Willys Jeep that is now home to him and his dog — Randy.
He now paints to make an impact in people’s lives.
“There are 2,3 billion Christians who claim to know Jesus but I am yet to meet one,” Barry controversially remarks.
“We can’t even wait to get to hell because we have created our own hell on earth.”
Barry recently used the image of the Shroud of Turin to develop what he believes is the portrait of Jesus.
Although he wanted to use the prints of the painting to introduce people to Christ, Barry has finally conceded that his circumstances of living in a parking lot are not ideal.
“To get back on my feet” he is currently selling the painting through an agent whom he hopes will use the painting to spread the gospel.
Asked where he will go to from here, the candid Barry says he will continue to stay in his Old Land Cruiser bakkie but no longer staying in one place.
“I don’t want to rent, I want to be alone and free. I am working on finding myself. Here, I am totally free. I have no distractions.”
To rising artists, his advice is: refuse to conform.
“Aspire to do art that has never been done before. Talent is a gift but it is no benefit unless we can share it.”