I met Khehla Chepape Makgato after a chance encounter at the Joburg City Library. He was animated in conversation with William Stewart and I could not help but overhear the art discussion that had ensued between the two. I soon introduced myself to the vocal figure of Khehla Chepape Makgato as he walked down the stares of the art section. Fast forward a few months, several other conversations on mentorship and book swoppings, I find myself nestled away in his studio at the recently moved Assemblage Studios, west of the Joburg CBD.
Although Khehla Chepape Makgato is not a photographer, I am here to bare witness the birth of one of the pieces that will be part of his next solo exhibition Herons Of The Southern Africa opening on September 9th, 2016, along with the play Mosali Eo U “Nailing Eena at the Market Theatre. Below is an insert of a conversation we had a few weeks ago as we discussed, Khehla Chepape Makgatho’s upcoming exhibition and some of his highlights for 2016, enjoy.
Shots011: Who is Khehla Chepape Makgato?
KCM: Why do you ask such a question? What answer do you usually get when you ask this question? (laughs).
Shots011: I get various answers. Some people enjoy reflecting on their back story while others tell you about their current work. So you could go in any direction you want.
KCM: Well, for me it’s simple. Khehla Chepape Makgato is someone who wants to interrupt the norm. I am very interested in investigating the system. Especially the accepted system within the arts. I want to interrupt the normality of that system and how it functions. Of course, that comes with its own challenges and stuff.
However, interrupting the norm is who I am.
Shots011: How is the process going? Would you say you have achieved what you have set out to do?
KCM: I am getting there. It has proven to be a very fertile road which I think will germinate some fruit. It has been for me, a very exciting journey. I am not doing it for myself. I am also doing it for young artists who may look up to me as a point of inspiration.
Maybe one may ask; How do you interrupt the norm? I am one person who does not like waiting for someone to come and do something for me. I would say I am establishing my own thesis. I am testing this concept of interrupting the norm. It may not make sense to those that are highly opinionated. However, everyone has a chance to really establish a thesis and test it. If the thesis doesn’t work, one can always go back and regroup, as they say in politics.
Shots011: So how did this journey of artistry begin?
KCM: I’ve been an artist for eighteen years. I remember exhibiting my work when I was ten. This was back in the late 90s on a TV program called Mopane. The program aired artworks made by children at the end of each news broadcast and some of my work was exhibited there. It gave me hope you know. To see your work on a national TV program at the age of ten. That’s when I thought I would do art.
However, growing up in a rural village has its own challenges such as a lack of facilities. I had to put a hold on my art because I didn’t have materials. I practiced it casually, every once in a while. Then when I returned to Johannesburg, about eight years ago, I started practicing it professionally.
Shots011: Within the eight years of work, what has been the biggest challenge?
KCM: There have been a number of challenges. However, one needs to understand that every challenge has a custom-made solution, sometimes. The biggest challenge for me was that I didn’t have my own studio. Although, after graduating from art college I had told myself that I was an artist and it didn’t matter whether people believed me or not. So I started creating works from my room where I used the back of the door as an easel. It was a small room (bathroom, kitchen & bedroom) and when I added the studio element to this small space it became a challenge to myself to consistently call myself an artist and create work from there.
Then in 2012, I approached several galleries because I wanted to exhibit this work in a solo exhibition, and I told them I was an artist looking to exhibit my work. While some would agree and others were not interested. What I vividly remember is approaching this small gallery with my portfolio made from cardboard. The lady I found there asked if I had my work with me and I laid it all on the floor. Even though I knew it wasn’t of great quality then– since I was still trying to find myself– I asked her to tell me if my work would be the kind she would exhibit in her space. She then asked me to send her this work via e-mail (to my dismay since I’d done this several times before). It could’ve been that she was tired and couldn’t focus but I took that as a sign that perhaps my work wasn’t of her taste.
While walking home I realized that I used to work at David Krut as a general worker in the bookstore, gallery and sometimes helped with a few exhibitions. I thought to myself that I should actually curate my own show. I then started thinking very hard about it and later went to the Johannesburg Library where I spoke to the librarian– William Stewart– about the possibility of curating and exhibiting my work there. When I later brought my work and he showed an interest, I realized that the space was too big and I had to go back and create more work. That’s how we pulled off my first solo exhibition. From there, I never looked back. The following year, we did a second one, and a third the year after that. This year will be my fourth one.
So it’s been interesting. And I think the Library exhibition was one way of interrupting the norm and not waiting for someone to handpick me and say: “YOU’RE AN ARTIST”. Sometimes you just need to work so hard and passionately that you convince society that you are an artist. This is one of the most challenging aspects of every artist’s career, especially in the beginning. You need to be aware that you are dealing with a very stubborn society that doesn’t just accept that you’re an artist. So you constantly need to show and engage them.
You need to be aware that you are dealing with a very stubborn society that doesn’t just accept that you’re an artist. So you constantly need to show and engage them.
Shots011: You work with multiple media, from collage to charcoals, paint and prints. How do you bring all of them together into your way of expression?
KCM: I come from a printmaking background. I studied printmaking for three years so I enjoy it because you need to keep exploring and finding new ways and approaches to your work. You learn from artists that came before you, borrow from them and, add your own understanding and interpretations. Each medium has its own language. So you inject your voice into each medium and that’s the approach.
For example, in printmaking, there are techniques such a linocuts and one artist can’t scoop like the next. Even if I tried to scoop like someone else, I do not think I would find my own voice. There’s a distinct way of scooping which is unique to each artist. This is why when you look at my work, across mediums, it’s different. Yes, there is me in each medium but each will be distinct.
My fascination with working with different media is also a way of trying to become something akin to a film star. There was a mind that told me three years ago that each time I see your work, it’s different and I think that’s how it should be. Because you are like a movie star. You need to act in different films and still manage to be good in them. So I chose to see myself as a movie star, where I can act in different roles and different genres.
Shots011: 2016 has been on a steady ascent. You were in Chicago early this year, then a few other local art exhibitions and then the Turbine Art Fair. What would you credit the success to?
KCM: I think it all depends. People define success in different ways. For me, the greatest success was taking a risk and leaving my 9-5. Here I was going to a place to do something that I was really not passionate about. However, I was doing it because I wanted the money to be able to pay my bills. I then realized that my soul was dying each time I commuted to work. I then decided to just quit this job and focus on my art.
Then there were questions of how I am going to pay rent since I have to pay rent for two spaces, my apartment and my studio. Each time I would get those questions, I answered by telling that person that should I get stuck, I would come to them so they could help me pay my rent (laughs). In life, people have fear burning inside them. They always try find the next person to unload that fear onto. So me telling them that I would come to them should I get stuck doing what I love was a way for me to bounce back that fear. To say, you know what, fear I do not want you! I will survive. That’s when everyone became quiet because maybe they thought I was going to make my problems theirs. However, I just didn’t want to internalise their fears.
I think the great success was the ability to focus on my work full-time. Being able to consistently create work that has some sort of narrative in it.
Shots011: What are some of the narratives you are dealing with?
KCM: In 2013 when I created the work for what I thought would be my next solo exhibition– a tribute to the lives lost in Marikana– I agreed with myself that for the next 10 years, – I was going to create work that would be a personal and social tribute to Marikana. Earlier this year I started on the fourth edition of the Marikana Tribute called Manuscripts from The Koppie, which Kgalema Motlanthe loved and has part of the work is in his collection.
Then there is a body of work titled Heroins of the Southern Africa which will be exhibited at the Market Theatre alongside an upcoming play called Mosadi Eo U ‘Neileng Eena on September 9th 2016. The artistic director at theatre came to my studio and saw my work and realized that I work mostly with female portraits and that’s when he told me about the play and asked if I was interested.
So the work will be a partial collaboration with the Market Theatre, which will be exciting to see. What I am trying to do with that exhibition is highlight the great leadership by females, especially during the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. I am talking about the likes of The Rain Queen, Modjatji, which has Queen Modjatji one to four. Then I also created a piece called Nandi, who is Shaka Zulu’s Mother. Then there is a piece that talks about Mantatisi, a Tlokwa Queen, who is Modjatji’s contemporary. I relate so much to that piece since I am from the Tlokwa Clan. Tlokwa is an extinct cat, which I think had the same strength as a lion. So I am trying to show that we have heard about kings. So much of our history has been glorifying and only idolizing males. Now let’s hear about queens as well.
That particular series is close to me in different orbits or angles. I was raised by my grandmother and elder sister. So my sister had to head the household since she was twelve since my mom was working in Johannesburg and my grandmother was getting old. So I grew up being surrounded by strong women. I can vividly remember my grandmother when I was six or seven and we didn’t have maize meal. She would take a container and go to her female friends and ask for some so we could go to bed on a full stomach. That, for me, was a great sign of bravery and greatness. That alone, makes the series of work so close to me. Because that is leadership right there. If it had been someone else, she would have said that our mother is in Johannesburg so why should she care.
I’ve also worked on a body of work for a Cape Town exhibition called The Executives. With this body of work, I am trying to manipulate the corporate structure where I position women from the top. I intentionally put two men in that series. The first one is just an intern and the other a receptionist, which is unpopular since the job is usually given to women.
I am trying to say that we should not get it twisted. Women can also have leadership qualities and skills. If you look at society, girls are vulnerable. We need to raise girls who feel that they are equal to their male counter-figures. So I am also trying to create equality in the process. I would like the next generation of girls to feel very confident. I want them to know that they have the ability to stand on their own feet and not be vulnerable. They need not succumb to the stereotypes of many centuries that men should do this while women do that. You may call it feminism, but I am not sure if that would suit what I am doing.
There is that fascination I find as I create the work. However, the main idea is to highlight the leadership of women and celebrate them.
I would like the next generation of girls to feel very confident. I want them to know that they have the ability to stand on their own feet and not be vulnerable. They need not succumb to the stereotypes of many centuries that men should do this while women do that.
Shots011: Besides your artistic interests you seem to be involved in other activities such as the Samanthole Creative Projects and Workshop which you founded in 2010, how do you juggle it all?
KCM: You know, I have come to accept that I was born to be in the arts, to explore and expand as much as I can. However, all of it is chapters within the arts. Yes, I focused on studying visual art and completed it. Now I am practicing as an artist. I also studied journalism and media so I could be a writer and I completed it. I believe I am a musician and plan on studying it along with architecture. So all these are phases of development. I think my work revolves around the arts. If you were to take away THE ARTS from me, I think I would be soul-less.
All these things feed into each other. For example, if I write about an exhibition or artist, I learn so much. I have to research about the artist and the medium. I also have to research on some of the artists I think influenced that artist indirectly or unconsciously. So it’s a process where I end up finding so many interesting things myself that I can use as an artist.
Shots011: Talking about influence, which artist has been the greatest influence in your career?
KCM: I believed in interrupting the norm from the word go. However, I have been influenced by many people. When I studied art at a tertiary level, I did research about who was in the arts. Who were the most senior artists that were there? I found that they were David Koloane, Peter Clarke, Judith Mason, William Kentridge, Sam Nhlengethwa, and Kagiso Patrick Mautloa. Then I thought to myself: are these people accessible? I realized that they are! You just have to push. If there is this invisible wall that puts you away from them, you need to break it!
I approached David Koloane and I asked him for mentorship. Initially, the mentorship was about writing and a bit of art. He influenced me a lot then. My earlier works in dry point have similar lines to his. Then I moved on to Peter Clarke who influenced me on pasting collages. Judith Mason just gave me feedback. I remember sending her a body of work to show her what I was working on. She took her time to really focus on commenting on each and every piece. I was very fortunate because some big artists are unapproachable.
Another person who was a great influence on my collage work is Kay Hassan. When it comes to printmaking and charcoal drawings, its William Kentridge and David Koloane.
Shots011: You seem to be very active and vocal on social media. You never seem to shy away from sharing your happiness or opinion. How does it fit in your persona and as a vehicle to drive your art sales?
KCM: You know; Happiness is a choice that you make. I decided a long time that I am going to be eternally happy. Yes, there are challenges where people hurt you or just come with their own nonsense. However, if you handle it with happiness, then you will remain happy. So I think me being vocal is a way of using Facebook to interrupt the norm. I’ve sold most of my works through Facebook. Most of my sales come from there, including the one I just made yesterday.
It’s also about how you present yourself to the world out there. Facebook is like a newspaper, TV, or radio. How you present yourself to the world is how the world comes to accept you. So for me, it has been like a gallery of sorts, it’s more than just a mere social media tool.
Shots011: If there is one thing that you wish you knew at the start of your career, what would it be?
KCM: I wish I had known that every artist is on his own. You need to know your value and constantly put more work out there. That puts the value to the work you already have as an individual. In the art world, it is said that exploitation is a gateway into the arts. You will be exploited and so forth. However, you just need to be strong and take charge of your art/career.
I wish I had known that there is more to art than the actual production of it. Your job as an artist doesn’t end once you have created the work. There is marketing and putting yourself out there. It has to continue until the work is sitting at someone else’s house. The thing is, you hear a lot of people come in and say they are art dealers and take work from artist and all of a sudden the work is sold but the artists is not paid.
Shots011: Do they not teach these things at art school?
KCM: I think it’s like that in every educational course. Let’s say you go to WITS for example, and you study business. They do not teach you how to start your own business but how to manage someone else’s business. So I think it is the same within the arts.
They just teach you how to create work but, not how to sell it.
These 10 questions originally came from a French series, “Bouillon des Culture” hosted by Bernard Pivot. They’re better known as the questions that James Lipton asks every guest at the end of “Inside the Actor’s Studio”. Their addition to this questionnaire is to get to know a bit more about Khehla Chepape Makgato the person, instead of the artist.
What is your favourite word?
What is your least favourite word?
What turns you on creatively?
Everything. As a creative, I am observant. I can hear a sound that inspires me to create something. I could see something that people don’t see and it would inspire me to do something. However, I think music really inspires me.
What turns you off?
Tiredness and Fatigue.
What is your favourite curse word?
I do not curse.
What sound or noise do you love?
I love the sound of the mountain. There is a guy by the name of Tlokwe Sehume, he does Music of the Mountains. I just love the sound of his music.
What sound or noise do you hate?
I do not entertain hatred man.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I love art with all my heart. If there is something I would do, it would have to be a profession within the humanities. As I said I plan on studying music and architecture.
What profession would you not like to do?
I can’t speak of other professions, I am satisfied with art.
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Well done my boy!
To see the completed piece above, along with his other works, please visit The Market Theatre from the 9th of September 2016 and explore the work of Khehla Chepape Makgato. For more information about Khehla Chepape Makgato, please visit his Facebook, Instagram, of find out more on the Assemblage website.