Trevor Crighton Images: © Nelson Makamo
Modimolle-born artist Nelson Makamo has come a long way since he started exhibiting his work at local shows around Limpopo. He joined the Artist Proof Studio in 2003 and via a bursary from Johnson & Johnson International and Pinpoint One, opened his first solo exhibition at the Obert Contemporary Art Gallery in Johannesburg in 2005.
Since then, his work has travelled the world, from Italy to the Netherlands and Paris to London & the USA – while still living, working and exhibiting in South Africa. On his travels, he’s won fans including singer Annie Lennox and designer Giorgio Armani, who both own his works. Art South Africa ranked him 7th in South Africa’s ‘Bright Young Thing’ list, and he was also recently named as the country’s second biggest-selling artist – a sign of how prolific he is in terms of producing new works.
His work is characterised by vibrant portraits, rooted firmly in blood & guts urban landscapes of Africa. Harnessing the chaotic energy of city life – his permanent studio is in August House in the Jo’burg regeneration hub of New Doornfontein – he captures the everyday essence of the people he meets, using vibrant colours and textures to create works that positively vibrate with the energy of the city.
Commissioned works play an important role in sustaining many artists’ livelihood, and Makamo has created custom works for Lakalakala in Makopane, portraits of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu for Matasis Investment Holdings, the City of Johannesburg, Standard Chartered, Telkom and Unisa. His work also adds energy to a Rea Vaya Bus station on Route 1b in Johannesburg, alongside other artists including Bronwen Findlay, Craig Smith, Jan Tshikhuthula and Lucas Nkgweng.
One of the driving forces behind his constant production of new works is his sketchbooks, of which he has about 150. He told an interviewer that he sketches almost every night, when the opportunity arises – and hopes to one day have an exhibition of these works, which tell stories with poignant immediacy. He takes his inspiration from everyday life, using his interactions with people and his environment to inform his work. His Artist Statement sums up his works neatly, showcasing the depth of emotion which marks him out as a leading light in the local – and international art worlds. “My work is my life, pain and joy, from the first piece to the last piece. In my work I am a storyteller, a narrator; I share, I document each day visually because for me each day is a blessing, being able to capture movement and feelings of people who live around me. I find joy within that because I believe that in each and every person is a special light that gives off a glow that reflects on others around”.