Capetonian creates breathtaking artwork using ballpoint pen
His neck and wrist ache but he doesn’t slow down. His hand moves deftly across the white A3 page, the blue ink flowing to create an image where there was nothing but white space before.
Artists all have distinctive style and Themba Mkhangeli, 23, is no exception – except his startlingly expressive signature portraits are created entirely with ballpoint pens.
Ballpoint isn’t an easy medium, and it’s nothing short of amazing to see the level of detail and light and shade Themba can get out of this ink-filled tube. In fact, he’s become so good at it one of his works recently sold for a handsome R17 000. Themba, who’s now preparing for his first solo exhibition, sometimes can’t believe he’s come this far.
It’s been a long journey for a young man who grew up not knowing you could make a living out of something such as art – and ballpoint pen art at that. He was born in Nyanga, Cape Town, one of five kids of single mom Busisiwe, 52, and moved to Mthatha in the Eastern Cape when he was four to live with his grandmother, Nolindile, 92.
Themba returned to the Mother City when he was in Grade 7 and it was while he was a pupil at Linge Primary School in Nyanga that he discovered his passion for drawing. “My brother, Thabile, also loved drawing and I always wanted to beat him at it. Most people were on my side, though,” he says with a laugh.
In his free time young Themba wanted to do nothing more than draw, but because his mom couldn’t afford coloured pencils he used a pen.
In high school his teachers urged him to do something with his talent, he says. “Teachers would ask me why I wasn’t in art school but I didn’t even know the meaning of ‘art’, I just liked drawing.”
He matriculated at New Eisleben High School in Crossroads in 2013 but, because he was unhappy with his results, he rewrote some subjects then went on to study industrial design at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
The future was looking rosy for the budding artist but he battled to come to grips with the theoretical aspects of his studies and dropped out. That’s when he started to think seriously about making a living out of his talent.
We meet Themba at the stylish Radisson Red Hotel in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront. He proudly points out some of the eye-catching art he designed for the hotel’s restaurant and bar area and tells us he also helped a friend, David Brits, create the striking red-and-white artwork on the hotels exterior.
Despite his success, Themba remains a humble youth who modestly describes himself as a “young and up-and-coming artist”.
Although his formal studies ended, he didn’t stop educating himself. “I visited galleries and museums to learn more about art. I taught myself and then used social media to market my work,” he tells us.
In September 2016, while walking in Cape Town’s city centre, he saw a billboard outside the Artscape Theatre Centre advertising an upcoming exhibition.
He contacted the curator of the exhibition, well-known South African artist Hugo de Villiers, and asked if he could showcase some of his pieces. Hugo agreed and Themba’s work was publicly exhibited for the first time.
From there he began submitting his work to art competitions, including the Sanlam Portrait Award 2017 – where his ballpoint portrait submission was one of the finalists – and the Vuleka visual arts competition, where two of his works were selected as finalists.
Themba mostly works on A3-size pages and says it takes four days to complete a drawing with ballpoint, although he’s started teaching himself to use oil paint and pastels too. “But I use a ballpoint pen the most because I love being unique,” he says.
He works in his tiny shack studio next to his mom’s home in Nyanga, drawing for four hours straight a day. He stops only to help his mother with her shisa nyama [braai] stand which she’s run for 25 years.
His works usually sell for R3 500 for an A3 drawing but there was that R17 000 windfall, the most anyone has ever paid for one of his creations. “A buyer saw it on Facebook and contacted me,” he says proudly.
Inspired by nature
Themba says he’s inspired by nature and loves to incorporate insects into his drawings.
“When I was young, we used to play with insects and kill them. But as I grew older I learnt the importance of insects and how they form part of our lives. I now try to include them in my work.”
His favourite insect, he says, is the bee, as it holds significance in his culture. It’s Xhosa belief that bees are connected to the ancestors, and “in our tradition, bees are part of our family. Funnily enough, that’s the insect I used to kill the most!”
Themba is working hard in preparation for his solo exhibition, scheduled for September at the Association for Visual Arts Gallery in Cape Town. The theme is his mother. “I’ve never met my father. The only father I know is my mother. So through art I’ll be showing my appreciation for her.”
Themba’s family was initially unimpressed by his interest in art and his artworks.
“But I know they appreciate what I do. They’ve also seen me in newspapers so they’re now keen followers of my art.”
His dream, he says, is to own his own art studio and gallery one day. “I also want to mentor young people, particularly from the poorer black communities. “I grew up without any formal art training, but I still decided to follow my passion. I truly believe you need to do what you love.”