There’s a good chance that you think of cognac as the tipple of fusty old men in wood-panelled hunting lodges. If cognac brand Hennessy is anything to go by, however, you may have to reconsider your position on the century-old liquor.

In fact, it seems the French liquor house is determined to prove that the region-specific brandy varietal is anything but old-fashioned.

Since 2011 it has collaborated with eight of the world’s most iconic urban artists (think graffiti, street art and tattoo artists) on its Hennessy Very Special (VS) Limited Edition range of bottles and murals. Some of the big names it has roped in so far include American Shepard Fairey — the man who designed the Barack Obama "Hope" poster — and his fellow Stateside creatives JonOne and Futura.

Hennessy’s latest collaboration is with Portuguese street artist Vhils. To mark this match-up, Vhils has just finished producing one of his signature artworks in Johannesburg’s Maboneng Precinct.

The artist started out as an old-school graffiti writer on the streets of Lisbon, but in recent years has found fame on a much grander scale. This is thanks in no small part to iconic street art mystery man (or is that woman?) Banksy — who chose him to exhibit at a London festival in 2008.

Hennessy. Picture: SUPPLIED
Hennessy. Picture: SUPPLIED

Vhils’ work isn’t what you might expect; he is passionate about exposing a city’s history. He does this using a mallet, chisel, drill bits and a jackhammer to break into walls, and create unforgettable images by uncovering historic layers of paint, plaster and dirt. By exposing these layers, he aims to tell the "city’s history, make the invisible, visible and hopefully make us think about our public space".

For the Joburg launch of his Hennessy collaboration, Vhils made a large-scale portrait of SA singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka. It looks down from the top of a building, over the garden of the Cosmopolitan Hotel on Commissioner Street — a city icon that dates back to 1899.

Having already created murals in New York and Chicago as part of the same project, he wanted to continue with a theme of portraying artists who are also known for their social activism. Chaka Chaka was an obvious choice for him, not just for her role as a Unicef ambassador but also for her continued work with her own Princess of Africa Foundation. The singer aside, Vhils tells the FM he is seriously impressed by Johannesburg, calling it an "incredible city with a vibrant local art community".

For cognac fans looking to add to their collections of the golden liquid, the Vhils VS Limited Edition bottle is on point as far as his trademark method of understanding history and layers goes. To create the design, he visited the Cognac region in France and looked back through the brand’s extensive archives and historic graphics — giving them a contemporary, edgy spin. Who would have thought?

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