Conversation with Artist Nelson Makamo

December 10, 2021

By Chenai Mangachena (College ’22 and Harvard Center for African Studies Intern) and Li-Ming Pan (Harvard Center for African Studies Communications)

On December 7, 2021, the Harvard Center for African Studies hosted our first hybrid event in our office space with hundreds joining us on Zoom and thousands more through social media. The event began through a shared desire among the CAS community to deepen our engagement with African arts. The Center for African Studies aims to facilitate this engagement through activities including conversations with artists, online art exhibitions, occasional workshops, and residencies for artists.

Nelson Makamo Hybrid Event

This activity was an in-depth conversation with Nelson Makamo, a renowned Johannesburg-based artist who is among those committed to an African renaissance and is best known for his charcoal and oil paintings. His career spans 16 years since completing training at artist schools in South Africa. His work primarily seeks to change the global mindset of what it means to be an African child and an African at large. Makamo has an interest in the concept of a Pan African connection and in forming innovative partnerships with institutions as well as artists in other disciplines.

Nelson Makamo Hybrid Event Audience View

During his talk, Makamo touched on multiple aspects of his life. He spoke of his vision, his understanding of what it means to be an artist, and his relationship with education. Providing insight into his work, primarily on the most prominent themes found in his pieces, Makamo expanded on the appearance of the color blue in his work. He said, “Blue allows us to finally see ourselves unfiltered. For the longest time, our lens has been fogged with hate, doubt, and conflict. Blue is washing away the fog, and clear blue skies are imminent and before us. This blue summons an age of recognition, transition, and development. It is pregnant with opportunities, because it is undoubtedly of a feminine resolve. The fruits will only be enjoyed by those who voluntarily surrender and embrace what has always come naturally.” The pandemic brought a reminder of humanity but also gave opportunities to begin anew, and to Makamo, the color that reflects new beginnings is blue. He sees it as a color of peace and unlimited vision, observing that no one has ownership of the sky or the ocean, and both are blue.

Group Photo with Nelson Makamo

Makamo went on to further discuss his experience with creativity and share his perspective on culture. He provided his take on African culture, which is that it dominates politics and transcends industries. He believes that creativity has always been the African way of life and something that just is, not something that was learned. He believes that alignment with one’s inheritance is power. Makamo further shared how art has given him a course to follow in life and a purpose to fulfill. He believes that as an artist one becomes an interest and a mirror to one’s environment. Makamo also shared his views regarding what route to take to become a good artist, stating that his experience going outside of Africa provided different perspectives that helped shape his own path. He shared that his work has a major focus on children as sources of inspiration. Because he was asked a lot of questions about his experience as a child when he traveled, he has felt a responsibility to educate and show how proud he is of his African identity. All his projects have been leading to him being proud of who is.

Makamo shared his views on art as activism. Art is the new politics that allows everyone to have a voice, and art does not discriminate. Every place has its own challenges. Apart from the colonial challenges it faced, Africa has beauty. Architecture, design, music, and other forms of art have always existed in Africa. “What can I do to use the instruments that I have to show the world where Africa is today?” Makamo says on what he wants to do with his artistic talent. He encourages Africans to be the ones to deliberately administer change within themselves and their communities. According to Makamo, activism is a contribution to change. As a collective community, the role of members is to show who Africans are in order to reeducate and take back control of the narrative. He shared his thoughts of how artists are now faced with the question how to inspire the communities that inspired them. By painting children, he gives them a voice, and by making his work life-size, he makes it bold enough for people to pay attention. He concluded by urging aspiring artists to make it their mission to reflect their identity wherever they go, to let their talent drive them, and to always look forward to a blank canvas.

You can watch a recording of the event here: