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Meet Reggie Khumalo: The self-taught South African artist celebrating Africa through his evocative work

South African fine artist, philanthropist and avid traveller Reggie Khumalo channels radical Ubuntuism through his work. Reggie talks to H&G about his artistic journey

By House & Garden South Africa | May 3, 2022 | Art

Khumalo, a full-time artist since 2017, travels and works across Africa to bring back Ubuntu and help disadvantaged kids get to school. He has had solo exhibitions in Paris, Berlin, Zanzibar, Johannesburg, Nairobi and Addis Ababa.

His recent exhibition “Mental Revolution”, which took place last month in Lagos Nigeria, called on all Africans to be liberated from a painful past to usher in an Africa that radiates with positivity and abundance. “I never had any formal training but I’ve been sketching since childhood,” he says. “I became a professional artist after taking a trip across the continent, meeting and working with artists along the way and starting to feel at home making art again.

Using acrylic on canvas and increasingly incorporating mixed media, Khumalo tells the stories of the places and people he meets on his cross-continent adventures. Reggie talks about his practice and what got him started.

Artwork by Reggie Khumalo

When did you start painting? How did it happen? Do you have any formal training?

I was always sketching since childhood. I would sketch my dad or someone else’s face. It was always faces for some reason. That continued for a long time. I never had any formal training or education. In 2012 I did a painting and I sold it. From there I knew it could become something. I officially became a full-on artist when I was 27. That’s when I became a professional artist. I took a trip across the continent to find the artist within myself because I knew that it was there because I had it when I was younger and lost it at some point. I did collaborations across the continent and so on. I felt at home making art again. From there, when I came back to South Africa I became a full-time artist.

What do you like most about the painting technique?

I like that nothing is ever wrong. I can always go over it if I get it wrong the first time. I use acrylic and lately I’ve started incorporating mixed media, but acrylic is my medium.

How has your work evolved over time?

It has definitely evolved because of all the traveling that I do. People, especially in Africa but also in Europe, inspire me. I am inspired by where I am. I tell the story of the people there. I also try to support the people wherever I am, in terms of charitable causes. So I don’t only take from the spaces, I also give back. I think the more I grow, the more I find myself in these places, the more I find myself growing in my art and technique too. I’m forever growing and so is the art.

You paint mostly portraits – are these real people? If not, where do they come from?

Some are real people; some are not. I change the faces. All the paintings you see are actual people but also fragments of my imagination. I would have seen a picture, but I look at it once and then I start painting. When I do so it gets distorted in terms of how I feel and from what I’ve seen, so I’d say it’s a bit of both – real people but also not. When I started I use to take images of people I meet. Some of them are just images I find wherever. It may be online or elsewhere. I then go with the flow of wherever it takes me. The structure is inspired by an image of someone or something.

Artwork by Reggie Kgumalo

Tell us about your exhibition in Nigeria?

I think it’s important that we criss-cross the continent as Africans in order to share our cultures, different points of view and to learn from one another. To capture a time in history. Travelling is the most important thing to do as an artist. We can fight things like xenophobia through art when we share other people’s stories, where they are coming from and why they are going through the things they are going through. What’s going on in those countries? I was in Sudan during the Revolution and I’d never seen people standing up against injustice. That changed my work. That’s what you see black faces in my work that are inspired by the people of Sudan at the time.

What’s next?

I’ve got a show in Munich and then New York at Rockefeller Centre with Bishop Gallery, which is my representation there. Then comes a residency with them for a year. That’s the plan but let’s see. In the next two months I‘m going on a trip across five African countries on a motorbike to raise money for the UN’s Food Programme. I’m going on site visits of their projects and coming up with a body of work and then I’ll donate back to those projects. I’m excited to get back on the road and do what I do best – to be wild, free and painting and sharing the spirit of Ubuntu to say ‘your brothers across the continent care about you’. We are in this together as Africans.

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