He’s famous for portraits of famous faces – but artist Ennock Mlangeni is going to be one himself, soon, too…
Self-taught artist Ennock Mlangeni first made waves on social media in 2017 when his portrait of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela went viral – followed, with similar success in 2018 by a portrait of DJ Black Coffee. He notably painted that one using different shades of Ricoffy and in 2019 with a portrait of Miss Universe, Zozibini Tunzi. But the fame – both virtual and physical – which followed, has, like all overnight successes, been the product of a decade and a half of hard work.
The Black Coffee work earned the 28-year-old all manner of nicknames – including ‘Coffee Bae’ – something he’s happy to accept because it means people are taking notice. It’s a far cry from the dreams of an 11-year-old boy reproducing drawings of comic book characters, to one who’s now helping cultivate an interest in art in children of a similar age. “Comics were something we were familiar with, and I had a skill for drawing, so I expressed myself with what I knew. It wasn’t intense, but it was interesting to me,” he says.
Now, he’s parlayed his success into a partnership with Ricoffy producers Nestle to develop an art teaching facility in a shipping container, called The Shack Art Studio. “I believe in change – changing the industry and other people’s lives. The program we are working on aims to teach young talent and develop them. Some have natural talent, but art is also something you can learn,” he says. “We are developing potential artists and giving others with some existing skills, a place to practice – coming together on a platform where we can exercise our talent, share it and grow it”.
The youngest artists are around 10 years old and will be given a grounding in the basics, while other young artists who show promise will have the chance to hone their skills in a supportive, collaborative environment. In keeping with the way Mlangeni broke onto the scene, he’s also keen to teach them how to market their skills once they start producing work, and mainly using social media. “I want to establish the first one, then work all over the country so more people can access and benefit from art training,” he says. “I want the facilities to be based in the most remote areas, where there’s no development, to bring change to the kids and give them hope they can still make it”.
Mlangeni believes that art is a way of expressing and exposing himself to the world. “For me, it’s a way of communicating – a way of showing the world a new perspective on something, using pictures”. As much as there’s an artistic imperative, bills need to be paid, so he has taken on several commissions, too. “Sometimes you have to execute what the client wants, but each piece still needs to have your personal touch,” he says. “It’s their idea, but it’s still Ennock doing this piece”. He says his work is inspired mainly by female characters: “When I lost my parents I was only seven years old, and I had to go live with my Grandmother. I take lots of inspiration from her. Nobody else was working, everyone depended on her pension, and somehow, she kept us all going. Women like her have amazing character and depth”.
Having progressed from his comic book sketches to portraiture and conceptual work, he also explored different media. Much of his work was created by painting on newsprint – also a necessity because of the cost of consumables. After Matric, Mlangeni focussed on painting in the hope of helping his Grandmother put food on the table and pay the bills. “It’s unfortunate that where I’m from (growing up in Secunda), we didn’t have big artists or galleries to show our work – the art market isn’t alive,” he says. “But I had a passion. In my life, I’ve never received any mentorship or been in a single art class. Everything I did, I did, all by myself”.
A donation of one of his pieces for a charity auction in Europe led to him being invited to put together his first-ever solo exhibition in Belgium in later in the year, which he is currently working on. As if the pressure of coming up with new works ahead of a major exhibition isn’t enough, it’ll also be his first time travelling outside of South Africa. Once he’s back, he’ll turn his attention to putting together a major group exhibition of artists from his development project, in Johannesburg in December.
On the Zozibini Tunzi work which rode the wave of euphoria generated by her win, Mlangeni says it’s natural for him to be inspired by yet another powerful woman. “I saw something in her – the way she is so bold, so intelligent and with such an amazing presence. She resembles the African icon, an African Queen – and she showed that if she can achieve so much, then there’s hope for everyone else in Africa to do the same”.
Trevor Crighton Images: © Ennock Mlangeni