Eloff Street Extension, Village Deep, Johannesburg. I’m sitting in Nelson Makamo’s studio. Blue is everywhere on the walls – ultramarine, cobalt, cerulean. The last strikes me most, cerulean blue, the colour of the sky, if the sky possessed colour. It appears in a striking portrait of a young girl in charcoal, its presence sketchy, a dab across the eye, a swab across a brow, a rudimentary halo that sputters at the left. There is no attempt to harness the randomness of the blue strokes and swabs, give it a definable shape and purpose. Instead, it is the delinquent application that draws me, the impertinence of colour it implies, in a work overwhelmingly monochromatic. I wager that this is the first work that will sell at Makamo’s LA show in October-November.
Nineteen drawings have already been flown to LA, the large oil paintings, a segue in blue, are still to follow. It is the segue that cannot be ignored, the density of the blues. The work I’ve remarked upon, more drawing than painting, is unique. What dominates is a roiling thickly lathered colour field which cannot but hark back to the precious blue of yore – lapis lazuli – which, in the medieval and renaissance era, was considered the most precious and sacred of colours, drawn from the stone of the Afghan mountains. Is Makamo alert to this historical precedent? Is it the sanctity and grace of blue that envelops him? The artist’s spiritual disposition, his belief that there can be no art without faith, would make this a dead ringer. But blue is not only auratic but also fathomless, and thus more complex than we typically credit it to be. Blue is not only elemental, or planetary, it is psychological. Blue hurts. Blue ponders. Pluralised, it is a love song to pain.
For Makamo, who has refused to anoint ‘black pain’, give it a categorical credence, it is not suffering that his paintings convey, though he notes that people are apt to infer pain whenever they gaze upon a black body. This presumptive intimation is the root of the perpetual misreading of black life. Makamo’s vocation, however, is not to correct this perception – reasonable given over 500 years of colonial oppression, unreasonable since this history is not the only story – but to paint the oneiric or dream-laden conditioning of blue, its otherworldliness, its surreality. This is perhaps why his latest suite of paintings seem untethered, unearthly. They evoke an inherited culture of spirituality, but Makamo’s take on blue evades the ostentatious sanctimony of Sassoferrato’s The Virgin in Prayer (1640-50), or blue as the insouciance of mercantile wealth, revealed in the inner lining in the dress of the wife in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait of 1434. Neither religious or monetary power, and blue as a symbol thereof, interests Makamo. Instead, I think it is blue as a vision of the soul, as a deeper reveal, which interests him.
Given the black body’s putative impenetrability or objecthood, it has never been allowed to correct its gross misreading either as mere surface or elusive threat. If Makamo’s paintings matter it is because they have refused this obscenely forked optic. Instead, his paintings strive for a connection as surprising and engaging as it is miraculous. No perversity clings to the aesthetics of production or reception. There is no darkness in their making. Rather, it is the absence of this pathological reverberation that irks some, and why, incorrectly, Makamo’s paintings are misjudged for being sentimental. But as Makamo informs me, ‘We are all in a blue period, a period of hope, suspended, in line. This is a period that tests you as a human being’. What does he mean? Certainly, that this is not a time for doom-scrolling. ‘There is no one movement’, he says, and, therefore, no room for absolutism. ‘We possess no artwork that can be said to define this period’, one of ‘panic’, in which the worst decisions are made prematurely. Rather, one needs to gestate, still oneself. In this regard, ‘blue is the colour of introspection’.
Given over 500 years of black oppression and underdevelopment, which continues today in systemic inequality, the desire for introspection is refreshing. It is the depth of a being voided by misperception which Makamo gifts us. His blue is not a variant of Amy Sherald’s grayscale, which mistakenly assumes that race becomes secondary thereby, but an attempt through colour, through race, to evoke humanity. As to the reception of these paintings in downtown LA in October, who knows. That Makamo has chosen a pop-up venue directly opposite Hauser and Wirth is savvy. That he has ensured that the black community is integral to the event even more so. It all has to do with the Location of Culture.
What is certain is that the black body in art is de rigueur and achingly fitting today. If Makamo can bypass the crass opportunism of the taste-makers, help them to rethink the ongoing fetishization and commodification of black life, he will have succeeded. In South Africa, a country murderous, violently conflicted, inconsolable, introspection is vital. ‘We have never been permitted to appreciate beauty’, says Makamo, ‘we don’t have a strong history of portraiture which speaks about how beautiful we are’. The root of the problem is age-old – the diminishment of the black self. This has been Makamo’s wager throughout – that black life can be articulated in ways that defy a persistent pathological inheritance. Hence the beauty of blue, its luminescence, mystery, rich depth, sumptuousness.
For Matsela Alexander – a key player in engineering the solo show in downtown LA – Makamo’s brushstrokes are ‘not as tight, the colours more blended, defined by variations in a single shade of blue’. This restricted colour palette is not restrictive at all. Rather the graphic delineation of his more iconic work, with its medley of wildly contrasting colours, has been replaced by a more aqueous world. Against prevailing panic, Makamo asks that we desist, against rancorous conflict he calls for understanding, against cold objectification he inspires intimacy. It is curious that blue, a cold colour, can generate such warmth, but then the warmth Makamo aspires to is not physical but abstruse – psychological, emotional, spiritual.
I received my first blue portraits by Makamo on my phone while in the ICU in Baragwanath in June. There could have been no better place, no better timing, my body flooded with oxygen, wired to an infusion pump, my life hanging in the balance. To see blue is to want to live. Snagged in the narrow confines of my bed, I paid deep attention to the lives of others, the nurses and doctors apace, the porters wheeling corpses by. There, in that context, blue mattered, its sanctity, drift, infinity, and the presence of this vastness in the everyday. It is never the kindness of strangers one needs but the kindness of one’s fellow human beings. Infinity exists at the narrowest of points. One sees the world more clearly, kindly, when fear is purged, when faith returns.
This is Makamo’s purpose, and why he is misjudged as a sentimentalist. If art has been obscenely turned into a religion for atheists over the past 121 years, Makamo’s role is to restore faith and sanctity in the act of looking-feeling-experiencing an artwork. If I’ve learnt anything in my hospital bed, it’s that we’re done with clever paintings, the nullity of pastiche. Our returning faith is not orthodox but fluid. If ripeness is all, then this historical moment, wracked, agonistic, perverse, requires artists who can console us. Makamo’s blue world is one attempt to do so. Thinking again of his charcoal drawing of a girl-child with its roughshod smattering of sky, I realise that the nurse’s shifts and masks at Baragwanath too are sky blue, cerulean blue.