Contemporary art from Africa seems to be on the rise. Sales are booming. With the growth of international art fairs, such as 1:54 and our local Joburg Art Fair and Cape Town Art Fair, contemporary African art is in vogue globally. But, this is knowledge for those immersed in the culture of visual art. Broaden one’s view of popular art in the mainstream and it becomes eerily clear that for the layman art is filtered through mass media. These sources tend to either concentrate on the overtly political and often distasteful antics of artists such as Ayanda Mabulu and Brett Murray who have fallen under the realm of ‘shock factor art’, or an understanding of art that is restricted to historical figures such as Pierneef or Stern, with the odd mention of William Kentridge. All of which presents a somewhat stagnant idea of what art is in a South African context. It is because of this limited popular perception of art in our local landscape that I viewed the recent cover of TIME Magazine, featuring a work by Nelson Makamo, as a welcomed change of pace. To truly grasp why Makamo’s work getting featured is actually a big deal, an understanding of the power of TIME as a publication, the popular perception of South African art and Nelson Makamo as a transitional artistic figure is needed.
The weight of the negative perception of our art scene really hit home after speaking to an American curator recently who stated that he had been warned by a colleague before coming down to South Africa that he shouldn’t expect much from the art culture here. After pressing him to substantiate this he said: unlike other countries who have gone through some form of political resurgence, like Germany – with its breaking down of the wall dividing East and West, which subsequently saw a rebirth of their arts scene – South Africa doesn’t seem to have had much growth post ’94. At least not in a way which is noticed by the media and popular culture. This general mindset, however, has taken a turn in a matter of days as images of the work by a vibrant South African artist gracing the cover of TIME Magazine has flooded timelines across the continent and world. Yes, South African art may not be making as great a splash in the minds of the everyday man but a South African artist making the cover of TIME Magazine is a positive story that few can ignore.
Could this cover not only forces the mainstream to take notice of the true contemporary art scene that exists in South Africa today, but also injects it with the a much-needed boost of coolness that isn’t seen by the South African masses? I pondered over this as the glow of one Nelson Makhamo’s portraits of a South African child looked back at me from my Instagram feed. This incarnation of his work that is bordered by the iconic red frame and recognizable font of a TIME Magazine cover carries with it much weight. This painting of Makamo’s 11-year old cousin, Mapule Maoto, titled Vision of a timeless future which was commissioned for the 2019 Optimistic Issue of TIME seems an apt fit. It not only gives a nod to the subject matter of children, which fans of Makamo’s work will be accustomed, but because it also marks a mode of optimism which this artist harbours towards the future. TIME as a publication has, since its inception been a global barometer of popular (American) thinking in our time, as it has marked many a turning point in our history. Having Nelson Makamo’s artwork on its cover signals a flare from an African artistic revolution for contemporary art. There is an argument to be held about Makamo’s work truly being defined as contemporary in light of his use of a traditional medium. Yet, his depiction of rural children who are in transition to urban environments marks contemporary ideas of African existence. His exploration of children’s lives mirrors his own transition from rural Limpopo to the urban environment of Johannesburg in search for a better life
This is not the first time Nelson Makamo has presented a splash of positivity to the local art scene with his expressive charcoal drawings, vividly coloured paintings and prints. Towards the end of last year, my social media was filled with images of Oprah Winfrey and the filmmaker Ava DuVernay visiting his August House studio space. It seemed to signal a shift in the status quo of the art industry. These were not images of Oprah and Ava meeting an artist at a gallery, but instead showed a direct interaction with the artist sans a gallery. This gradual shifting of power from the hands of traditional institutional gate-keepers which we are gradually seeing more artists make the move away from gallery representation to independence.
With whisperings around a Makamo clothing range, it is clear that this crop of artists are living by their own rules, exploring what may lie beyond previously explored horizons. It may have taken Makamo four months to create the commissioned work that graces the cover of TIME Magazine, but hidden within the optimistic gaze of his cousin’s eyes is the story of not only a contemporary South African artist on the rise but of the re-emergence of fresh dynamic artistic voices from Mzansi, all refusing to be ignored by the world.