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Born in 1982 in Modimolle, a small town in the Limpopo province of South Africa, Nelson Makamo grew up in a family that encouraged his artistic pursuits, if only as a hobby. Both his parents were scholars and tried to edge him towards the field of chemical engineering, but the drawings he’d create and scatter over the floor of his childhood home told a different story. Drawing on inspiration from abstract expressionists like Picasso, as well as comic books, it was an exposure to contemporary African artists like Dumile Feni which kindled his passion for painting. As he put it to one journalist: “When you have a passion for something you will always be curious and interested.”
Makamo studied chemical engineering for three months at college, before dropping out to take up a three-year community college course in printmaking, which remains the basis of his work to date. His first exhibition, Walk With Me, took place in 2005 at Johannesburg’s Obert Contemporary Gallery shortly after he graduated, and it wasn’t long before he began booking more solo shows around the world.
The following year, Makamo was invited to take part in a group show of South African artists such as Colbert Mashile and William Kentridge to celebrate the work of the David Krut Print Studio. The exhibit, entitled Ten Years of Printmaking, was a huge success, and further propelled Makamo into the public consciousness. His first international solo exhibit happened in 2008 at the Gallery Izarte in the Netherlands and he has since been included in several group shows worldwide.
However, Nelson Makamo remains a South African artist at heart, once describing his biggest influence as “being an African child”, and continues to live and work in Johannesburg. Much of his work is dedicated to the country’s cultural and political figures, from portraits of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo to depictions of day-to-day life in South Africa.
Although he got his grounding in printmaking, Nelson Makamo’s art has utilized many different media, including charcoal, watercolors, acrylics, and oil paintings, as well as silkscreens and monotypes. He has often said that his work is not planned in advance, and prefers to be led by “the canvas and the day’s inspiration”.
Beyond high profile international gallery shows, Makamo’s work has become extremely sought-after by famous collectors, including Giorgio Armani, musician Annie Lennox, Oprah Winfrey, and director Ava Duvernay. The latter was also responsible for commissioning his first TIME magazine cover when guest-editing an issue themed around optimism. Makamo painted an iconic close-up portrait of a South African child, a piece which he entitled Vision of a limitless future.
Makamo has begun harnessing his increasingly global reach through his Instagram account, which he considers a particularly thrilling change to the art scene. As a result, he is less inclined to consider himself a purely “African artist”, explaining to TIME that “there’s no longer really that line between the South American Artist, the European Artist, the African Artist”.