“I see them, and they see me; so I paint them.” It is early June, the beginning of winter in Johannesburg, and I am with Nelson Makamo in his studio. Laid out on the floor in front of us are around 30 paintings and drawings, a new body of work for his first London solo exhibition in more than five years. He is talking about the element of exchange in his work: “and they see me.”
The way that Makamo’s characters look out at the viewer has become a recognisable feature of his drawings and paintings. Looking at them, I can feel my gaze being met by a subject that looks back at me. The people he draws and paints – normally young residents of African villages – are engaged in a reciprocal relationship with the viewer; when you see an artwork by Makamo, there is a feeling that you are being seen too. Because of this, they require more care and attention than most portraits do.
At the exhibition’s opening reception, some weeks after I first encountered the artworks in Makamo’s studio, I overheard someone talking about their own experience of this feeling: “Nelson’s work just makes you stop.”
This quality of the artist’s work is no accident. In having them look back at the viewer, Makamo gives his subjects the agency that they are too often denied. Outside of the artist’s work, African children are often depicted as being destitute and hopeless, a one-dimensional and voyeuristic narrative that dehumanises them by taking away their ability to define themselves. There is a skewed balance of power, and no element of exchange; they are looked at by the world, but robbed of the ability to return its gaze. Makamo redresses this balance by having his subjects meet the eye of the viewer, giving them back their personalities.
In this exhibition, our London audience was exposed to the sheer range of these personalities. The thirty three works on show depicted curiosity, defiance, melancholy, yearning, generosity, joy, mischievousness and so much more. To me, Makamo’s work is all about changing perceptions. My hope for this exhibition, the artist’s re-introduction to the UK, is that visitors left with their perceptions of Africa changed, the tired trope of hopelessness replaced with some of Makamo’s undiluted expressions of personality.