Johannesburg-based Nelson Makamo uses his art to give a voice to the children of his birthplace, Limpopo, the northernmost province of South Africa. He is known for using a variety of expressive mediums such as acrylic, print, watercolour and charcoal drawings, to create candid portraits of children. Makamo’s career spans sixteen years, during which he has solidified an iconic signature and a subject matter that has steadily placed him on a global stage, making him one of the world’s most sought-after young visual artists of our time.
Rather than showing African children as destitute, a common and somewhat mistakenly used motif of rural African children, Nelson presents his subjects as radiant and full of hope. For example, in Golden Moments. His expressionistic artwork, therefore, explores both the beauty of youth and the eternal joy of childhood. It is perhaps for this reason that his feature in TIME magazine referred to his work as “The Art of Optimism”. Makamo’s artwork speaks to changing the global mindset of what it means to be an African child. His portraits portray the emotions that every child possesses, from conviction to prowess to determination. His use of mixed media and unique mark-making techniques break the scholarly rules to create a distinct and recognisable style. Endearingly, Nelson’s most frequent subject is his 12-year-old cousin, Mapule Maoto, giving these particular works yet more warmth and personality.
Nelson spent three years studying printmaking at the Artist Proof Studios in Johannesburg. After graduating, his practice continued to evolve through experimenting with a variety of materials, especially with his now-signature medium, charcoal. Equally experimental in nature is his work ethic; Nelson never plans what he is going to paint, he prefers to let creative spontaneity lead the way. His artistic influences, nevertheless, include the likes of contemporary visual artist Dumile Feni, Picasso and Van Gogh.
Nelson’s globally renowned collections have been exhibited in South Africa, the USA, France, Italy, the Netherlands, England, and Scotland. His work is featured in prestigious public and private collections worldwide. Nelson also appeared on ‘The Daily Show with Trevor Noah’ in 2019, where he was lauded for creating a world where young African artists can speak to the world through their art, rather than being told how their art should be accessed.
If you’d like to learn more about Nelson’s artistic practice, read our interview with the artist Charcoal and Child’s Play with Nelson Makamo.