‘I just go with the flow. With my work, I don’t sketch, I just go straight onto the canvas. I don’t like planning, that’s the thing – I draw what I feel at that specific time.’ Themba Khumalo is seated in his studio at Johannesburg’s August House. The space is large and industrial and full of light. Pot plants are dotted throughout the studio and the walls are covered with Khumalo’s own works as well as the works of other South African artists. It is a space that allows him room to work, reflect, and respond to the world around him. Outside, down End street, the city is bustling as always.‘It’s funny, you know. When I was still based in the Vaal, my work was all cityscapes, because I was fascinated by the energy and the structure of the city,’ says the artist. ‘Now, I only paint these landscapes that you find in the Vaal.’
For Khumalo, the prolific printmaker and charcoal artist whose work has come to be known across Johannesburg, South Africa, and even further abroad, art was always going to be the tool he used to navigate and make sense of the world, geographically, politically, and philosophically. Moreover, art is his way of making meaningful connections in a world that’s simultaneously overwhelming and isolating.
Growing up in Orange Farm, away from the majority of his siblings in Soweto, Khumalo was a shy child who spent his primary and high school years scribbling away at cartoon characters and learning basic shading and 3D techniques from school friends or by way of artist books from the local library. After matriculating, Khumalo spotted an advert for Artist Proof Studio (APS) in one of the local newspapers. A friend of his had taken up his studies there a few years prior and encouraged Khumalo to do the same.
‘Going there, I didn’t know anything about printmaking, but I knew I wanted to become a full-time artist and I thought “why not?” I studied there for three years. It was quite a journey for me in terms of confidence. I was meeting other artists, creating conversation, creating work – that’s when I became confident in my work,’ says Khumalo.
In the three years that Khumalo studied at APS, three key areas of his career were taking shape. The first was his continued exploration with printmaking, and the free-flowing act of etching and mark-making that you can still locate in his drawings and large-scale works today. The second was the ability to converse with buyers directly through APS, being able to talk through his technique, his intentions with his work and, importantly, his price-point. Finally, Khumalo’s APS days saw him making the trip from Orange Farm into the city almost daily and it was this constant journey through the Vaal – with its sparse, dry grasslands, towering pylons and telephone poles, and moody skies – that form the basis of so much of his current work.
It was also during this period of Khumalo’s career that he began attempting to figure out interconnectivity and isolation through his work. ‘So I use plugs, especially in my old work, and also power lines and pylons to represent people in my work. People trying to connect. That’s something that’s very difficult for me,’ he says. Indeed, many of the artist’s older pieces feature electrical equipment – plugs, wires, pylons – used to connect power to homes, or to transmit human voices via telephone lines that drape themselves throughout empty landscapes, crackling with connectivity. In some of the works, you’ll find a mediation on familial relationships, too. ‘This one, for example, represents me and my mother,’ says Khumalo as he pulls a small print out of a drawer. The work features two pylons, one smaller and reaching towards the sky, the other taller and leaning slightly to the side, as if ready to embrace the smaller structure. ‘She’s my role model,’ says Khumalo before sliding the work back into place and closing the drawer.
Following his studies at APS and a one-year internship at a silkscreening studio that saw him living in Fordsburg, the opportunity to travel abroad was presented to Khumalo. A residency in France led to Khumalo working with charcoal – a crucial step in his journey as an artist so far. It was also in France where Khumalo began to experiment with clouds as vehicles for emotion in his work. ‘I know my work is very quiet, but the clouds say a lot,’ explains Khumalo. ‘I try to capture that specific time and moment that’s taking place around me as I work.’ Acquiring a studio in August House gave him the space he needed to really play around with large-scale charcoal works, and following another international residency – this time in Germany – Khumalo would begin to experiment with coffee in his works.
The result of all of these influences and journeys was showcased in mid-2019 at a solo show at Johannesburg’s Gallery2. Titled Emhlabeni, the exhibition was a testament to Khumalo’s curious and sensitive mind, as well as his intuitive and responsive method of mark-making. In Emhlabeni, land is something tangible, spiritual, and political. Through Khumalo’s empathetic practice, the landscape becomes witness to the complexities of South Africa and its people. Protest, loss, longing, prayer, and more play out on the earthy and evocative landscapes.
New to these works was the introduction of colour – red and white in particular – and of people. Red Ants, red and white tape, and religious groups clad in white occupy many of the works from this period and speak to Khumalo’s interpretation of dispossession, occupancy, and the spiritual and political meaning that land takes on in South Africa.
‘I did those works around the time of the heated land debates,’ explains Khumalo. ‘In the Vaal, there are these vast open spaces, so you get people going there and putting tape around an area to claim it. It’s something I’d see all the time. Even if I go to the Vaal now, there are people fighting over the land, because land is used in all of these different ways – to live, to farm, to pray. So that’s when people put up the tape, and that’s also when we see the Red Ants coming in, too.’ What’s next for the artist? Khumalo’s currently working towards an international solo show in early 2020, and is looking to take on more collaborative work next year. Excitingly, he’s interested in further activating his works through the use of animation, too. ‘I’m having a lot of fun with this right now,’ he says as he thumbs through his phone for two separate stop-motion videos. One shows an inactive landscape which later comes alive with the activity of wind and abstract movement. The other shows a protest scene, the flames of burning vehicles rising up and engulfing the entire frame. They are the two realities Khumalo repeatedly finds himself returning to – stillness and chaos, seclusion and exposure, clarity and confusion.
Still, through the work of Khumalo, these multitudes begin to find resonance in the everyday. Be it in the quiet moments of prayer, the fluid movements of a piece of plastic tape flailing in the wind, the graceful gathering of storm clouds, or the very human lean of a pylon standing in the distance.
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