By Sandi Wells | AfricanColours.com
Born in Zimbabwe, Makiwa Mutomba is one of South Africa’s top-selling artists. When you see his work, you understand why.
All of his work is created exclusively with a palette knife demonstrating remarkable artistic ability. He loves to exaggerate forms in a playful manner of bold strokes and cheerful colour which translates into beautiful and happy paintings. I am in awe of this artist’s amazing work.
Makiwa is presently living in Pretoria, where he lives with his wife and two daughters, and paints from his studio home. He has had successful solo and group shows in Zimbabwe, South Africa, USA, Germany, London, France and India and has done a number of commissions for private collectors.
Sandi Wells: “Mhoroi” (Shona for hello).
I understand that your father was a Headmaster which probably made him ultra-keen to see that his son received an education that would provide strong employment opportunities. What was your Dad’s reaction to your dropping out of Engineering especially after three years of studying it?
Makiwa Mutomba: Very disappointed. He disowned me for a while as he was convinced that only dead artists make it as far as painters were concerned. To him (and my mother too), it would have been wiser to complete my degree as I only had two years to go.
SW: Makiwa, I can understand that. My Father was an engineer and he was absolutely appalled when I decided to study Fine Art. So, what did you do then?
MM: Well Sandi, I thought otherwise and even broke contacts with them and went to rent a room in Harare where I virtually shut myself out from the rest of the world. When I look back, I think I was going crazy then.
I took up a job at a pottery factory in Ruwa called Ros Byrne Pottery, decorating ceramic-ware to pay the rent and eat, but quit again after only three months. That was when I realised I was not cut out to be employed by anyone. I just couldn’t stand being employed and I’d do anything to stay out of a job.
When I quit my job at the pottery in 1999, I had more time to paint. I painted tiny postage stamp sized oil paintings with a table knife and a few tiny acrylics on paper.
Image from isisgallery.co.za
SW: To expose yourself like that takes a lot of confidence in both you and your work but it also comes with quite amount of risk and vulnerability. How did you sell such tiny work?
MM: I gathered up some courage and took them (tiny postage stamp sized oil paintings) to a gallery called Gallery Delta in Greenwood Park, Harare. The owners Helen Leiros and Derrick Huggins were fascinated and agreed to include me in a group exhibition where they framed and sold all 20 of my miniature paintings. The money enabled me to stay out of work and continue painting, but not for long.
SW: The Gallery Delta is bringing back some memories for me and I am pretty sure that when I was a student, I went to a Jazz performance there … probably in the year you were born; 1976! Anyhow, they have been doing a brilliant job of promoting and developing local talent for decades.
So, that must take us to early 2000? A difficult time in Zimbabwe …
MM: Yes, it was June 2000. Zimbabwe was in political turmoil with white farmers being evicted and the economy starting to decline rapidly. The few galleries in Harare which sold my work were not selling a thing. I left Harare, where I was then staying with an uncle, and went to Victoria Falls. My plan was to sell my miniatures to tourists whom I believed would still be plentiful in that part of Zimbabwe. Arriving in Vic Falls with only 1000 ‘ZimDollars’ in my pocket, I rented a plastic shack in a compound in ‘the location’ for $200 a month. A room was going for ZW$700 a month.
Waves | 170cm by 80cm
SW: Talk about a ‘starving artist’! Perhaps, not so romantic?! …..
MM: That was the lowest point in my life, but the greatest moment in my career. It made me realise that if I could be so poor, and still prefer to paint for a living and not be tempted to look for a job. It must be in my blood to be a painter.
I realised that I would always be a painter. I would live on a loaf of bread a day and walked to my “stall” 10km away each day to paint and sell to tourists. I say “stall” because it wasn’t really a stall, but just trees at the roadside where I hung my paintings on the branches.
I had to go this far away from town because I had been chased away by the town engineer from my earlier “chosen spot” along the Bulawayo-Vic Falls road. He stopped his car when he saw a few tourists gathered around my display. After they had gone, he came up to me and asked what was doing. I told him I was an artist and was selling my paintings. Then he said that spot was not a designated area and I had to move or else the municipal police would arrest me. Soon after he had left, another car stopped. This time it was a certain local businessman/politician who saw my stuff and liked it, then said I could sell next to his place some 10km away if I wanted to.
SW: That was a lucky break. So when did you get your ‘real’ lucky break?
MM: I sold the tiny paintings for ‘US’20 each, and got a lot of Zimbabwean Dollars after changing it. The following month I moved to a proper room and bought myself a brand new mountain Bike! This was the turning point in my life. I really saw how much people liked my paintings because I would get at least one car stopping per day and sold almost everyday. At the roadside I met Cathy Van der Merwe from South Africa. She had a gallery in Vaalwater and invited me to come and sell my paintings there. From there, I discovered Johannesburg……and as they say, ‘the rest is history’.
SW: History is a second away … Your last solo exhibition was “Andhra Pradesh - Miniature Paintings from India” – can you tell us what you have planned for 2011?
MM: I am working on some private commission paintings. Exhibitions include Artists Under The Sun Project, Val d'Or Estate, Franschhoek in April, New Signatures Exhibition at Alice Art Gallery in Johannesburg in July, Solo Exhibition at the Cape Gallery in July as well, In August I will be Main Exhibitor at The Blou Donki Gallery in Clarens, where I will also do a Demonstration of my technique, September I will be showing with Shirley Brandon and Barbara Siedle at the Green Gallery in Durban.
If anything else comes up I will try to fit it in as I like working under pressure.
SW: Makiwa, you are a busy man! I knew Barbara years ago when I owned an art supplies business – she is a very nice lady.
Your middle name “Mufaro” means “Happy Man”, doesn’t it? One of the reasons why I love your work so much is because it’s happy art. What are your feelings about political art?
MM: Yes, Mufaro means happiness. I am happy with life, despite all the hardships and suffering in the world. I believe it’s a blessing just to be alive.
On Political Art and modern art in general, I think it’s sad that just about everything is classified as art these days. E.H Gombrich said: “There is no such thing as art; there are only artists….Men and Women who are favoured with the gift of balancing shapes, colours and textures until they are right ….” I agree with him.
A good artist can display a urinal in a gallery and viewers will go: “wow, that’s amazing” simply because it has been done by an artist known to be good. Exploiting their social standing, some good artists choose to make political statements disguised as art, and sadly, some viewers fall for that. If a musician sings a song full of political connotations and the public goes wild, is it because it’s a good song or because of the message? To confuse the public further, it may even be a good song, well laid out, catchy tune and all but I think it compromises artistic integrity. Why not just be a politician in the first place? Also politicians should stop making feeble drawings and selling them for millions just because they are famous.
Bottom line: In my view, there is art, in which “anything goes” and is pushed by the media hype, money and many other motives, and real Art (with a capital A) which “stands alone, and appeals to the artistic sense of our eye”.
SW: I totally agree! I am reminded of a recent conversation I had with artist John Smith. He has a problem with the term “contemporary art” and said: “How Damian Hurst or Tracy Emin can be considered as having any real social relevance is beyond me, but they would be considered prime exponents of that movement?”
Imagine yourself as one branch in a ‘family tree’ of artists. Name 3 or 4 other artists who make up the other branches?
MM: That’s a difficult one Sandi, a tree cannot have so few branches. I’d say Marlene Dumas, Claude Monet, and Irma Stern, and of course the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn.
SW: “Cannot have so few branches” … Makiwa, you make me laugh! It’s your attention to detail and you should know, given your Baobab Gallery at Vic Falls! Hold on, Msasa Gallery is more likely.
Now that you have shown your Dad that your art can put ‘bread and butter on the table’, what does he think?
Swing Swing | 69cm by 82cm
MM: Seeing all that I have managed to achieve now, I am now forgiven and my dad admits he was mistaken. I never held it against him that he didn’t want anything to do with me for a while. I understand his background, colonial history and where he was coming from.
SW: As you have for your parents, you have made your fellow Zimbabweans proud.
MM: Thank you.
SW: It has been an absolute pleasure and on my ‘family tree’ of artists is Makiwa Mufaro Mutomba.
Posted By: Maggie Otieno
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