Go inside the worlds of art, fashion, design, and lifestyle.
On October 6, 2020 in Los Angeles, the South African artist Nelson Makamo gathered with art patrons for the debut of his first U.S. solo presentation. At a pop-up gallery space at 1242 Palmetto Street, DeLeón Tequila hosted an intimate dinner for the artist and invite-only guests to get a behind-the-scenes look at “Blue” (October 7–November 20).
Presented throughout the space were emotional works in the artist’s recognizable style and favorite color that were created over the past four years, including 14 never-before-seen pieces. Inspired by the rich cultural heritage that surrounds him in Johannesburg, the monochromatic drawings and paintings made of watercolor, ink, and oil paint provide a lens into an indigenous South African philosophy called “botho.”
Whitewall spoke with Makamo about why his work and this special exhibition stem from a profound place, how he explored a new medium during the pandemic, and what the color blue represents on a large scale.
WHITEWALL: “Blue” was an exhibition four years in the making. What was the starting point?
NELSON MAKAMO: It all started when I decided to be independent and I had goals to have my work on the world stage. I made the decision to invite strategic thinkers to help make this dream a reality, namely my manager, Matsela Moshokoa.
WW: The exhibition is the largest grouping of works you’ve ever shown. Why was this theme explored in such depth? And why now?
NM: I spend most of my time in the studio working. I believe in always being in one’s practice. Drawing and painting on a daily basis has helped me study my own work and push my boundaries every time I’m in the studio. So when we decided to finalize the U.S. show, we had a lot of inventory to choose from to inform the message that I wanted to present. I have explored throughout the last years the color blue, in a monochromatic technique with watercolor, ink, and oil paint. When I pulled out all the pieces that I have been working on, the blue collection became pretty obvious, as if for all those years I was working toward what has made up this current body of work.
Blue has a few profound meanings for me. It is a color that depicts a new beginning; it might not be apparent at this moment with what the world is going through. Blue is the color of hope, the longing for a different world, a world that is nurturing and safe, a world of abundance and not lacks, a world where self-reflection is part of our healing. Blue is the color of the vast blue oceans and the endless blue sky after a storm. Blue is also a color that is ushering in the era of divine feminine energy.
WW: What ideas influenced these new works?
NM: My work has always been about what I am surrounded by on a daily basis—beautiful Black people with amazing stories and dynamic lives. A rich culture embedded in this indigenous concept called “botho,” meaning “I am because you are.” All my work stems from this core place. How it translates onto canvas is a spiritual creative process.
WW: How did you work during the pandemic? What was that period like?
NM: I was very productive during the pandemic. Both myself and my team achieved a lot during this downtime. It was as if we needed it as we prepared for the next chapter of my creative journey. I experimented and explored a new medium, watercolor. It was a very cathartic time of introspection, and because the world had slowed down it made for the perfect working backdrop with very little to no distractions.
WW: What is your Johannesburg studio like? What’s a typical day like there? What materials and ideas do you typically work with?
NM: My Johannesburg studio is home. I spend more time there than I do in my actual apartment. The studio is comfortable and a creative sanctuary. It has a high ceiling, big windows, and skylights for amazing natural light during the day. I have a 35-year-old bonsai tree in the middle of the studio, and a small suite that I get to rest in when working overnight. The studio itself is located in an industrial part of the city.
My typical day starts with a great gym session, then meetings if needed with the team, a good lunch, and then I start working around six p.m. when everyone leaves the studio. I work best in the quiet nighttime.
Materials I most favor are Belgian linen canvas, great art cotton paper, and I use mixed media from charcoal, oil paint, ink, and acrylic and keep experimenting with new mediums as well.
WW: The show explores the emotive range of the color blue, including recognition, transition, and development. Why? What does the color blue represent to you?
NM: The color blue represents the future we are unconsciously moving into. Blue is a color of reflection, and this is the time for Africans and the Black diaspora to finally see themselves for who they truly are.
WW: What are you working on next?
NM: Working on a number of exciting explorations, mainly new mediums. You will know when I figure these out for myself, too.