During interactions with the media in 2017 at an Atelier Awards function at Absa’s head office in Johannesburg, multidisciplinary artist Banele Khoza appeared shy. 

Soft-spoken to the point of fault, Khoza had reached the finals of the prestigious award. But throughout his life, he has not raised his voice, not even when his situation was precarious.

When he was a student at Tshwane University of Technology, the Swazi-born artist had no relatives in SA and often went to sleep on an empty stomach. Not even his closest friends knew he sometimes missed classes because he could not afford the taxi fare to campus.

Nowadays, as one of the most promising artists on the contemporary art scene, with prestigious awards under his belt, Khoza has learnt to ask for assistance. He needs help to assist art students who may face the same problems he had.

Khoza has just launched nonprofit organisation BKhz Foundation, which will give grants to struggling art students at SA universities. To launch his fundraising activities for the foundation, Khoza has curated an exhibition at Absa’s gallery. The proceeds of the sales of the works donated by 35 artists will go to the foundation.

The exhibition, A Letter to My 22-year-old Self, is on until the end of January, and by that time he hopes he will have raised enough money to assist students entering university in the new academic year.

“Asking for help is something I had to recently learn to get this exhibition going. I approached 35 artists to donate their works and all of them said yes; and so did Absa, which allowed me to mount this exhibition in their gallery,” Khoza says.

Though the exhibition speaks to the moving personal story of the 2017 Absa L’Atelier award winner (the Gerard Sekoto award), Khoza believes his struggle to support himself through his passion is a story shared by many successful artists. So A Letter to My 22-year-old Self also features letters the 35 artists have written to their younger selves offering advice on the sometimes difficult journey that lies ahead.

“The foundation will assist students with tuition fees, accommodation and food, something Khoza is passionate about. When he asked me to be part of the foundation, I immediately agreed,” says Marcus Desando, an award-winning opera artist and CE of Arts and Culture Trust, who gave the keynote address at the opening of the exhibition on November 11.

The artists participating include youngsters Heidi Fourie, Tatenda Chidora, Andile Buka, Ed Young, Nina Torr, Alexandra Karakashian, Mia Chaplin, Bright Ackwerh, Vusi Beauchamp and Khoza.

The older generation has also come to the party, including Zanele Muholi, Dale Lawrence, Nelson Makamo, Lady Skollie, Ilandi Barkhuizen, Sifiso Mkhabela, Colbert Mashile, Lemeeze Davids, Matt Hazell, Diane Victor, Gordon Froud and Mikhael Subotzky.

Khoza says he was overwhelmed by the response. “For example, when I visited Nelson Makamo to view the one art work he had initially donated, he changed his mind and said I could take three works instead, and they are worth more than R600,000.

“I have never learnt to ask, until now. I have been brought up in a manner that makes me shy to ask. But this time, and due to the difficulties I experienced while a student in SA away from my home country, I had to learn how to ask so that I can assist students who may find themselves in a similar position. No-one should experience what I did.”

Khoza has also launched an art gallery of his own, BKZ Gallery in Braamfontein, where his studio and the BKhz Foundation are also based.

Before pursuing his passion for art, he studied at the London International School of Fashion for a year. In 2016, he held his first solo exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum and exhibited at the Also Known As Afrika Art Fair at Le Carreau du Temple, in Paris.

In 2017 he showcased work at the Cape Art Fair with Smith Studio, held his second solo exhibition at Lizamore and Associates Gallery, curated a group exhibition at the University of Stellenbosch Woordfees Art Festival, and participated in a group exhibition at Galeries Lafayette, Paris.

A Letter to My 22-year-old Self is at the Absa Gallery in Johannesburg until January 25.