Interview with Themba Mkhangeli, South African Ballpoint Artist

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South Africa has undoubtedly some of the most gifted and creative people in the continent and abroad. So why do we often struggle to find young and upcoming talent? The short answer is that our country has limited opportunities when it comes to exposing and empowering young people so that they can have a platform to showcase their talent to the world.

Vukawanele recently ran a competition calling on young designers to submit artwork showing what Youth Month means to them. The prize included a showcase portfolio website to allow upcoming artists to leverage the benefits of being discoverable online.

We caught up with Themba Mkhangeli, winner of our #VukaYouth design competition, to find out where he draws his inspiration.

What is your background?

I grew up poor like any black child in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, in a small village called Julukuqu where my roots lie. It was not easy to become an artist because no one in my family understands what is art, how important is as I was struggling to even get materials to draw. I am currently based in Cape Town in Nyanga East.

I was raised by a single parent ( my mother is the only father I know ). She runs a local business selling sweets, chips buckets, and meat for over 30 years now. Before I went to school earlier in the morning  I had to be up helping her to pack things and also in my spare time. I am an aspiring ballpoint pen artist who focuses mostly on the human form, particularly portraits.

I started doing art at the age of five but I realized my talents in Grade 6 while doing school projects.  The older children encouraged me and from the environment, my confidence grew. Now I’ve managed to get into different competitions like Sanlam Portrait Award 2017 (top 40 finalists), my ballpoint pen portrait was selected through top finalists, and also Vuleka art competition where two of my works were also selected through finalists but I could win which makes me proud.

I was also nominated as 100 Mandela youth (creative category) and I have been featured in so many magazines, tv shows, and newspapers like Drum magazine, Art times magazine, South African Artists Magazine, Cape Argus newspaper, City vision newspaper, Sunday times newspaper, Cape Town tv, Morning and Afternoon expresso, SABC 3, etc. I have been doing many group exhibitions around the country in different galleries like Art.B gallery, Rust-en-Vrede gallery, Nel Art gallery, Art@Africa just to mention a few. 

That’s truly amazing! What inspires your work?

I’m inspired by things that I see in front of me. Mostly I love nature. Africa inspired me with its beautiful nature – humans, plants, and animals. I love nature. When I was a kid I used to play with insects and killed them but as time goes I learned that insects are very important in our lives and they play a huge role. A greenfly is a symbol of poverty.

Who are your biggest influences?

Elize Herholdt Bezuidenhout, Loyiso Mkize, Nelson Makamo, three of them are South African portrait artists and Oscar Ukonu from Nigeria. 

Tell us about your thinking around your winning piece “Umhlobo Wokwenene”?

Sometimes it’s painful to see people or friends turn their back to you and walk away. It’s also helpful to believe in what you have and trust no one. Dogs are the most social pack animals who thrive on attention and affection, making them a prime candidate for a person’s best friend. Since dogs have been domesticated to a point where they need us to survive, we tend to find that we need them almost as much. People and dogs developed a symbiotic relationship.

Aside from nature, what are your aspirations when it comes to the youth?

It is always important to inspire people by what you are doing and give back to the community. My dream is to own my own art studio and gallery and to serve as a mentor to young people, particularly from the poorer black communities. Acquiring artistic knowledge and skills will provide a positive attitude and confidence and a much-needed source of income.