The first time I saw Themba Khumalo’s work was at Nelson Makamo’s studio at August House where both artists work. I was drawn to his emotive charcoal drawings that capture busy cityscapes and the vast empty fields he observes in and around Joburg where he lives.
There is a contradiction about living in Joburg that I’ve always felt. On one hand there is this feeling of energy and movement, an intense connection you feel living in one of Africa’s biggest cities. Yet there is also this sense of isolation, of being alone despite being surrounded by millions of other people. I sat down with Themba in his studio on a hot summer’s day in Joburg, outside his window large storm clouds gathered in the background with the welcome promise of rain. I talked to him about the city that inspires him and his own personal journey.
Can you remember your earliest memory of drawing when you were a child?
When I was young, my mom used to buy me comic books and I loved them. I remember in primary school I started to draw the superheroes from these comic books: Superman, Spiderman and Batman were my favourites. For most of my childhood I grew up alone. I have a brother and sister but they lived in Soweto and I lived with my mother in Orange Farm. I was very shy growing up and preferred being by myself. Drawing was something I could do alone and something I loved to do, so I ended up drawing a lot when I was a child.
When did you first realise you wanted to be an artist? When I was in Grade 8 I started going to art classes at school. At first I was too shy to go, but one of best friends encouraged me to give it a try. He was an artist – he used to draw, paint, make jewellery – a lot of different stuff. He taught me a lot of things and we are still friends today.
Once I started the art classes I also started going to the library and reading up about different types of art and artists. I knew I wanted to learn more about this world and that being an artist was something I wanted to do.
After school you trained and later graduated in print making from Artists Proof Studio in Newtown, which is a well-known training center for artists and print makers. What did it feel like to be accepted there? After high school, I think I saw an article in the paper about Artists Proof Studios and they were talking about printmaking. It was interesting to me because I didn’t know anything about printmaking and since my mom couldn’t afford for me to study at university, I saw it as an opportunity to further myself as they were taking interns. I built up the courage to take my portfolio and I was accepted! I was so excited and I thought to myself: “This is it, this will be my chance to be an artist.”
Artists Proof Studios plays an important role in nurturing artists and giving them a platform. What do you remember about your time there? Artists Proof Studio was one of the best things that happened to me as an artist, I still go back there and it’s like home to me. When I first got there I stayed in my own corner and I kept to myself. But with time, I interacted with other artists, exchanged ideas and started gaining more confidence in my work.
When I was doing my 3rd year at Artists Proof, I decided I wanted to be a full time artist. The good thing about being there was that I was surrounded by artists like Philemon Hlungwane and Nelson Makamo. I saw them doing it, achieving success as full time artists and that gave me hope for myself too, that I could make this a full time career.
We were lucky to have these guys sharing their ideas with us, their wisdom, saying ‘do this’ and ‘have you tried that’ and that gives you confidence in your ability. That’s what I loved about Artists Proof that we have successful artists mentoring younger artists.
That is still so important to me because I see the impact it’s had in my career. Growing up in my community of Orange Farm we didn’t have those role models and being an artist wasn’t something that was valued in my community. It was when I was at Artist’s Proof that I grew as an artist and felt confident that this is what I would do with my life.
What drives you as a person? I have always been shy and hated speaking. The one thing I knew about myself was that my weakness was my communication skills, my ability to talk to other people and confidently express myself. When I’m making art I can portray what I want to say. I feel I can’t truly express myself in a powerful so I let my art speak for me. My art is my voice, my words, my expression to the world.
I’m also driven by the fact that today in South Africa you have a situation where young people don’t believe in themselves and they don’t have hope for their future. They are doing drugs and drinking alcohol because they are saying there is nothing for them. They come from nothing; they can’t make anything of their lives.
What I do is not just about me. I want to prove a point to kids who are from the same background as mine, that you can be successful and make something of your life. I go back home and share what I have done with young kids in my community. I want to show them that it can be done.
Your work captures everyday life and what you see in Joburg and it’s surroundings. Tell me more about what inspires you? One of the themes behind my work is based on my relationships with people. In my work, I explore feelings of connectivity and isolation. My attempt is to build trust and closeness with others through my artwork. There are never human figures in my images. Electric poles, plugs and cables feature a lot in my work, these are metaphors for life, energy, hope and movement.
The subjects are seen in different contexts, all outside, in a city or landscape. This gives the context and the atmosphere is created by the sky. I’m used to being alone and being with myself. I think this is the reason why you will find that my work is so empty; it’s only now that it’s starting to have more movement and I’m adding human figures in my work. It’s a reflection of my upbringing, that sense of being alone and as I grow older that longing to find connection. I think this is something people who like my work relate to the most.
Tell me about you work, how do you bring your artwork to life? I have a digital camera, which I take with me wherever I go. I often document scenes between Johannesburg and Orange Farm. I take pictures of spaces and the sky at various times of day. These images are used as reference and from there I develop charcoal drawings. I like using charcoal because it allows for manipulation of form and the blending of tones.
Etching is my chosen printing technique because it allows me to describe the range of tones, which are present in the original charcoal drawings. Each work created is intended to capture and evoke a different mood and feeling.
You’ve just returned from a residency in Saint-Émilion, France, with the Southern African Foundation for Contemporary Art. What was your experience like and how did it influence your work? When I was at my residency, the studio space I was working in was small so I had to work on smaller size paper and that was very frustrating to me because I’m used to working on larger scale work. I struggled at first and I missed my studio. I had to settle with smaller drawings and this challenged me to think about my work differently.
When you are away from home you tend to look at your work differently because you are away from your familiar space, it gives you perspective because you are out of your comfort zone.
When I first got there I was doing what I’ve always been doing but after about a month, I started experimenting with doing something different. It is a series of people who have passed away. One of the artworks I did was called “The Silent Prayer” and that’s when I knew there was something coming, something new, something strong. So I started going deeper, exploring this theme of loved ones who had passed away. People who know my work have said there is something different in my work: a change, a growth.
When people saw “ The Silent Prayer” they spoke about Marikana because there were figures lying on the open field. It was not my intention to evoke Marika when I made the work but it showed me how different the responses of the viewer can be to my art, it was a very interesting to me.
Sometimes when you are remembering someone you loved who has passed away, you say a prayer, maybe a wish to be with them and you send a silent prayer to them. So I drew these papers flying to the sky as a metaphor for our silent prayers to our loved ones.
The residency inspired me to explore new techniques and new ideas. My time in France helped me to see outside myself and explore new ideas so was really grateful for that opportunity and the chance to travel.
What’s next for you? I’ve just had a group exhibition at Gallery 2 and also a group exhibition with other artists at August House and I’m working on new body of work inspired by my time in France and I’m looking at painting in oil which I’m excited about. I will hopefully be exhibiting at the Cape Town Art Fair in Cape Town in February 2017.
Kholisa Thomas is the founder of The Art Talks, a platform that allows first time collectors of art and established collectors to engage with the artist and the story behind the artist work in an approachable, relaxed and fun environment. She also runs a Johannesburg based art advisory business.
Kholisa Thomas is the founder of Art Talks, a Johannesburg-based art consultancy.