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Exhibition Review Shifting views of Africa away from Western media templates

ROGER MCKENZIE recommends an exhibition of a young South African artist who redefines our perception of the continent and its people

Nelson Makamo
Rise Art

 

THE Johannesburg-based artist Nelson Makamo has a new exhibition of his work at the Rise Art gallery in London.

Makamo, like many of the crop of excellent African artists gracing the art world, has a mission to showcase Africa as somewhere that is not to be viewed as a place to be pitied as a victim of another war or the climate emergency caused famine.

For sure the continent has a multitude of problems to overcome but youthful creativity, energy and sheer talent are not among them. This is clearly on display in the work of Makamo that you should divert yourselves from the delights of the West End to go and see.

Makamo is best known for his charcoal and oil paintings that portray Africans as strong and as vibrant as anywhere else on the planet. The danger with charcoal is that the artist could easily just present a gallery of dark images. This artist does not even get close to falling into that trap.

Makamo manages to create powerful images that portray the extraordinary light, colours and, importantly, the youthfulness of the continent.

Around 60 per cent of Africans are under the age of 25. Indeed the median age of the continent is around 19.7 years. So it makes perfect sense that the portraits presented by Makamo are mainly of young people.

This is an important statement from Makamo. It says Africa is more than the richness of its often troubled past whether it be the apartheid past of South Africa or the history of enslavement or colonialism.

As important as remembering that past is and, vitally, the struggle to end the evils that have blighted the continent, the portraits shown by Makamo make a statement about the youthfulness of the present being vital for the future of the continent.

I was struck by how many of the portraits were created this year. Many artists might be tempted to present a mixture of new and older work. Here though Makamo presents 33 new portraits that are an excellent showcase of his exciting talent.

The collection of new work reflects to me an urgency that the world needs to understand Africa better than it does away from the prison of victimhood that has been created for it.

A common feature of many of the portraits is the large round colourful eye glasses in which the artist dresses many subjects.

This suggests to me that not only are we looking at the portrait but they are looking back at us and asking questions such as: What do you see? How do you see us? Are you looking at us as fictional subjects or – perhaps – as human being who have hopes and dreams in the same way that you do?

Not all of the portraits are of young people. One untitled charcoal and acrylic canvass piece shows a woman in a white dress and headscarf. She is standing with her back to us which, of course, means that you can’t see her face. The way she stood reminded me very much of the way my mom used to stand back in the day.

The skill that Makamo has with his portraits, whether you can see the faces or not, is to make you feel that you know the person. I think this makes his work both intimate and powerful.

I think any work that sets out to challenge a mindset that says one group of people are superior or more valuable than another is to be applauded. Makamo achieves that with this exhibition and I think you will enjoy it not just for that message but also for the high skill on show.

Nelson Makamo exhibition is showing at Rise Art, 67 Titchfield Street, London W1W 7PT until August 25.

 

 

 

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