Nelson Makamo

Born 1982 | Lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa


Henry James once wrote of Paris as a jewel, a city where what “seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next.” The same might be said for the ecstatic portraits of Nelson Makamo: rather than capture a single aspect of his subjects, he reveals their many facets, changed by the cast of light or by who is looking. In drawings, watercolors, monotypes, and oil paintings, the Johannesburg-based artist portrays children—his young cousin Mapule Maoto as well as strangers and acquaintances, often from his native province of Limpopo, South Africa—in all the complexity with which he encounters them. Radiant marks in explosive, varied colors cohere into the gestalt of Black faces.

While Makamo is drawn to the simplicity and hopefulness that imbues the child’s perspective, we also see in his faces the glimmers of hesitation, generosity, skepticism, grace, vulnerability, distraction, patience, and eagerness. That is, we see the abundance of what is always just behind the eyes, and in that abundance, a universality. In several of the works, wonderfully bright, oversized eyeglasses emphasize the act of seeing and the impact of being seen. “I believe that art can make you look at someone differently,” he told writer Enuma Okoro, “and I’ve always wondered, if we ignore other people, and fail to see them, can we still truly see ourselves?” Taking a cue from the openness of his subjects, Makamo works intuitively, without blueprint, foregrounding expression and experimentation in his practice.

"MOTHO, BOTHO, BATHO II" is Nelson Makamo’s second solo exhibition with Makasiini Contemporary. By using mixed tools and media from drawing to painting, the South African artist creates portraits on canvas and paper that draw inspiration from the childhood experiences. They challenge the typical portrayal of African children often seen in the West as sad and impoverished by depicting the juvenile characters as bold, strong, humorous and defiant. Makamo has exhibited in several solo and group exhibitions in the North America, Africa and Europe.