The Bigger Picture.
South African artist Nelson Makamo’s bold work is a product of an intrinsic sense of purpose and a desire to leave a legacy.
His artworks are instantly recognisable: large in scale and brightly coloured, they’re highly expressive portraits of ordinary people, often children. His bold, striking technique lends an authenticity and emotion to his work that can sometimes be absent in contemporary art.
He attributes this freeness to his lack of formal instruction, and argues that it’s precisely the self-taught and -developed nature of his style that has made it possible to turn art into his profession. “I’m glad I didn’t go to university – I think it would have paralysed me, and as an artist I’ve been given the ability to look at things differently. I’m a scientist and a historian and a biologist all in one. Being an artist will teach you more than studying ever can.”
His unique vision has helped him pile up accolades, most recently the Rise Art Prize in London, for drawing. It’s a prize that aims to discover the big thing in contemporary art around the world. It’s fitting that his latest accolade comes from his peers (a global panel of nine artists), curators and journalists, because he values the public more than the private when it comes to art. ‘The public voice has value,’ he says.
Democracy of art
Nelson’s belief in the democracy of art encompasses all aspects of it, from personal ownership and its inherent complexity, to a broader view on how art institutions should be run.
“Artists are always vocal about issues but it’s always with the goal of finding solutions and waking people up,” Nelson says. Art to him is meant to unite, bring people together and get them to engage, and it should also ideally be accessible to everyone. “It’s meant to be shared. The fact that when someone buys a piece they can do what they want with it, even destroy it, is a strange concept to me. Maybe rather than being owned, art should be bought and sold like heritage property: on a 100-year lease.”
For the people
This philosophy of sharing was no doubt a driver to his participation in the public artwork creation programme spearheaded by Maboneng, whereby local and international artists are commissioned to create pieces (sculptures, murals, interventions) in common areas as a way of beautifying and activating urban spaces.
Within this hub of inner-city Johannesburg, which he calls home, you can find some of his work brightening the various walls of the neighbourhood – belonging to no one and everyone, simultaneously. That’s why, more than material goods, he’ll ultimately measure his own success by the legacy he leaves. That keeps him prolifically productive, because it’s only by amassing an impressive body of work that a lifetime achievement can be judged. “The legacy you leave is what matters, not how much you earned as an artist. Wealth has never been my goal.” He continues: “The work used to be about me, but it’s not any more. Now I’m driven by the need to leave a legacy, to leave something behind.”