Celebrating women: Khehla Chepape Makgato’s exhibition revisits the village where he grew up and honours its resilient women. Picture: SUPPLIED
Celebrating women: Khehla Chepape Makgato’s exhibition revisits the village where he grew up and honours its resilient women. Picture: SUPPLIED

Khehla Chepape Makgato has been working as an artist for more than a decade but his love for art began early. Raised by his grandmother in Makotopong, a rural village east of Polokwane, he was interested in visuals and texts as a child.

"I always wanted to be a professional artist," he says. "I had an English and arts teacher in primary school who made me appreciate the arts.

"When I was 10, he taught us about great South African art masters like George Pemba, Gerard Sekoto and more."

After matriculating, Makgato pursued a diploma in fine arts (majoring in print making) at Artist Proof Studio in Newtown and a diploma in media practices (majoring in journalism) at Boston Media House in Sandton.

"Artist Proof Studio was the only institution that offered the opportunity to study for three years for free," he says. "And Boston Media House was the only option for me to pursue my journalism career because I didn’t pass matric with a university entrance.

"Both institutions gave me their different perspectives of the real world."

Although the journalism studies sharpened his communication skills and print making was a gateway to the practice of professional art, there was still an adjustment required when Makgato began his internship at David Krut Projects and as a collaborative printer and studio technician at Sharon Sampson Studio during his second year at college.

"I was surprised that art institutions only teach you how to make art, not how to get it out there," he says.

"The business side of the art world you have to discover on your own. But the journey has been great. It’s had ups and downs but all have contributed to the artist I am today."

Makgato acknowledges that it’s hard to single out specific highlights because they all form part of his creative journey. His list of accolades include being the inaugural recipient of the Art Across Oceans Residency at Kohl Children’s Museum in Chicago; winning the ImpACT Award for Visual Artist from the Arts & Culture Trust of SA; and winning the Mapungubwe Visual Artist of the Year.

"The difficult thing any artist has when starting out is that people, especially art galleries, don’t believe in their work," he says. "I dealt with this by using alternative spaces, such as libraries, to show my work.

"Artists are becoming aware that their job isn’t finished after they’ve signed their work. It continues until that artwork finds its new home, no matter what it takes."

His recent achievement was receiving the 2018 Zygote Press international artist residency in Cleveland. While in the US, he gave a public lecture to students at the Oberlin College in Ohio on Reimagining the African Contemporaneity of Art.

"One needs to be able to communicate ideas well. I feel reading a lot plays a great role in providing skills. That’s why I collect books and music and why, on a typical day, I’m either reading a book or creating art while listening to music from all over Africa," says Makgato.

He is inspired by travelling, hearing other people’s stories and exploring museums and galleries. He also found value in mentorships from the late Peter E Clarke and the late Judith Mason as well as David Koloane, Pat Mautloa and William Kentridge.

"Collaborations have impacted my work immensely as I learn a lot about myself from different perspectives and experiences," Makgato says.

"I like to work with anyone who believes in taking arts to the people, especially the majority of black people who have no access to the arts or don’t know where to start in appreciating it and making it part of their lives."

Makgato founded Samanthole Creative Arts to promote arts, literacy and cultural pride in rural areas. He also established the Rhodes Park Library Kids Book Club in Kensington, Johannesburg, to encourage reading and writing in his community. "We welcome donations of books for Khehla Chepape Makgato Youth Library, a community campaign aimed at establishing libraries in rural areas where we give every child access to books.

"We have a high percentage of illiteracy in our schools where our children can’t read or comprehend properly.

"Children cannot be faulted for not being able to read properly; it shows how sick a society is that it cannot provide remedies for these maladies, which is accessibility to books for our children, especially in the rural areas," he says.

Makgato works in a range of mediums, including collage and assemblage art, and his art often focuses on social issues and the people involved in them.

Because he finds inspiration from his upbringing, he continues to explore this through the themes of women, celebration, African stories from the past and everyday life.

"My work celebrates the excellence of black women leaders dating from the 1800s and I love everything about it because it gives me the freedom to create what I like," he says.

"There are no restrictions to my practice in terms of themes and topical pursuits. My stories are seamless and my style evolves with my maturity.

"It will never be constant; otherwise I’ll be a boring character to my creativity."

His next solo exhibition is titled Chronicles from Makotopong. It revisits and explores the village where he grew up and seeks to honour its hardworking and resilient women who, despite many challenges and few resources, raise children of note.

"I want us to realise our full potential in whatever talents we may have," he says. "Everyone is talented. We just have to tap deeply inside ourselves to confront the potential."

Chronicles from Makotopong is at the RK Contemporary Art Gallery in Riebeek Kasteel in the Western Cape from May 27 to June 20.