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Rising artist Reggie Khumalo is intent on telling Africa’s stories

Khumalo discusses his new collaboration with DHL and Veldskoen, finding inspiration in Van Gogh, Basquiat, and the women that raised him, and his commitment to telling Black stories

The behemoth continent of Africa has long bubbled with unbridled creativity. Right now, a new gen of artists are blowing up the South African art scene with their boundary-pushing works, while Lagos Fashion Week one of the most exciting events on the industry’s calendar, as editors shift their focus from ‘the big four’ (aka NY, London, Milan, and Paris) and towards its steadily blooming landscape. In Morocco and around the globe, art fairs like 1.54 showcase the best of the region’s creativity. 

Also turning its attention to Africa, and more specifically South Africa, is DHL, which last month unveiled a new collaboration with rising footwear label Veldskoen. Handcrafted in Durban, the unique mid-top boot utilised robust suede, dual-branded details, and came complete with a tiny South African flag, as Veldskoen’s co-founders Nick Dreyer and Ross Zondagh paid tribute to their heritage.

Perhaps most impactive, however, was the all-over motif the ‘Dear Everyone’ shoe – to give it its full name – bore. The punchy illustrations were the work of Johannesburg-based artist Reggie Khumalo, who’s become known for his intimate portraits, bold use of colour, and deep reverence for his culture, which he pours into his works. “If I were to define [my art], I would probably say it is African storytelling, African art. Or maybe Black storytelling should I say,” Khumalo reveals. “I want people to find identity in and across all my work.

Having gone through something of a crisis about his life and where it was headed, Khumalo came to painting when he was around 28. By 2020, he’d built himself something of a following, and came to the attention of Veldskoen, who reached out and offered to send him a pair of shoes – on the condition he used the fresh pair as a canvas on which to create art. “Long story short, we are friends now,” the artist says. “Eventually, they asked me to bring my art to the DHL x Veldskoen collab, ‘Dear Everyone’, for which I’m honoured to have had the opportunity.” 

Here, we get to know Khumalo a bit better, as he opens up about collaborating with DHL and Veldskoen, finding inspiration in Van Gogh, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the women who helped raise him, as well as the vibrancy and potential of the South African creative scene.

When did you decide you wanted to become an artist? 

Reggie Khumalo: When I was about 27 or 28 years old, I had a bit of a life crisis. I had lost all the money I had saved. I even sold my motorbike to finance a project I wanted to do, and that project failed. And then I got money stolen from me. Everything that I sort of had fell apart, and financially, I was lost. I got really depressed and was quite suicidal in a sense. It was such a low moment in my life. At that time, I needed to find myself; I needed to do something no one could ever take from me again. That was my art and my love for motorbikes and travel. That’s all I had, and I just felt like, “Let me just go for it and just live, and be alive through art.

During that time, I had left SA with $50-60 and managed to travel across the continent. I met many people that helped me out, families that let me camp with them. I was sleeping anywhere and everywhere. It was quite a humbling experience. It allowed me to reconnect with myself and realign with what I was meant to be doing in the first place: art. I think what had driven me was my mentor, a woman, who put me back in line. She guided me. That was where Ubuntu started for me. Experiencing love from someone who wasn’t a relative or even my mom, who said to me: “I got your back, I’ve got you, I know you’re going through this.”

That was an Ubuntu moment for me, and then I decided to travel again. I didn’t want to ask her for anything more, so I decided to leave with what I had, and the further I went, the more women came through for me. They took me in. It was just such a beautiful journey of seeing what African women are like and seeing the hearts for Ubuntu they have. I experienced it first-hand. My mentor has become kind of my adopted mom and the person I answer to in a sense now. She is very proud of what I do and that I can send girls to school, I can build schools and feed kids. From that $50-60, I’ve come a long way and can do more for others.

“Who and what inspires me, I think, is African women, Black African women who carry the spirit of Ubuntu. Ubuntu, to me, is basically the African philosophy of interconnectedness, sharing, kindness, and love. I am because you are, and you are because I am” – Reggie Khumalo

Who or what inspires you?

Reggie Khumalo: What and who inspires me, I think, is African women, Black African women who carry the spirit of Ubuntu. Ubuntu, to me, is basically the African philosophy of interconnectedness, sharing, kindness, and love. I am because you are, and you are because I am. Having been raised by a village, meaning that everyone plays a part in someone’s growth and well-being, I saw women being the keepers of this philosophy. In my experience, they are the ones who took in and raised other people’s kids. That’s why I think women, in general, inspire me.

Did you have an artist you looked up to growing up?

Reggie Khumalo: To an extent, I did. Some of the artists I am inspired by I didn’t discover until after I was a bit older, when I was already an artist and, in a sense, on my journey. But for most of my childhood, I guess it was Van Gogh. I liked that he was not perfect; I liked that he was a mess and no one appreciated him, and despite this, he kept at it. He kept working; he kept on doing his paintings because that kept him going. It was like an expression and something that if he didn’t do, his soul would have died. So yeah, I’m inspired by him. The imperfect artist inspires me.

After I became an artist in my own right, along my journey, I got inspired by Basquiat. I guess I found (just a little bit) that I had so many similarities in general with his life and upbringing, to an extent. The expression was there, the writing, the writing words and stuff, so yeah, that inspired me about Basquiat.

Lastly, I am inspired by a local artist called Benon Lutaaya. He passed away a couple of years back, but I really love his work, and it inspired me a lot. My inspiration has also been Thomas Sankara; though not an artist but his ideals are what all Africans should be about.

How would you define your work, what stories are you trying to tell, and what are you trying to convey?

Reggie Khumalo: If I were to define it, I would probably say that my work is African storytelling, or Black storytelling. I want people to find identity in and across all my work. This is something that is going to stay longer than I am going to. Paintings that someone can relate to. If it is in a museum, some kid in the next 50 years could go to a museum and see my work, and then they could relate to that work. They can feel and they can hear where we were, where these people were, who these people were. So there is a spirit to my work that is African.

I think I’m trying to convey the heart of an African. I’m trying to convey the heart of who we are and inspire a change within an African, in terms of they mustn’t think low of themselves. I want them to see themselves as equal to the rest of the world and to see the royalty in them. To see the power, the strength and the intelligence and that they’ve always been wealthy. They are the wealthiest, and the continent is wealthy, so this is what I am trying to talk about. I am trying to say you are enough, you are good, and you are great. I am trying to tell the story of the past.

“The creative scene in South Africa, I think, is like New York in the times before the boom and modernisation. Everything is quite creative, and everyone is quite expressive. It’s really empowered me to be in Jo’burg” – Reggie Khumalo

Can you talk me through the creative scene in SA? What do you love about it?

Reggie Khumalo: The creative scene in South Africa, I think, is like New York in the times before the boom and modernisation. Everything is quite creative, and everyone is quite expressive. It’s really empowered me to be in Jo’burg. Coming from that space where expression has become quite something. Whether it be dance beats, music, or whatever song, it’s quite an expressive city and country. Artistic expression is booming in SA, and as for the interpretation of it, I don’t know if the rest of the world is ready for it, but I think from what I’ve seen with my work and how people have received it, I think the world is intrigued. And I definitely love it; I love us telling our story the way we tell the story, you know. That’s where it is.

How did the idea for the design on the ‘Dear Everyone’ shoe come about?

Reggie Khumalo: [Someone from Veldskoen] saw my work, and he and Nick Dreyer, Veldskoen’s CEO, liked my art and the message it carried. The idea of putting my art on the shoes was immediate as we just thought [it would be great that] people would walk with this positive message on their feet.

What was it like translating your designs onto an item of clothing – were there additional things to think about or constraints you don’t usually find with painting on canvas? 

Reggie Khumalo: I think for me, working with canvas is literally putting paint on to cloth, so it felt quite normal. It felt normal to paint on leather. The constraints, though, were on the size of what I could do with something as small as a shoe compared to something big, which has a larger canvas. That was quite constraining. I definitely had to think about the quality, will the paint stay on, and how will the colour stay on in print. 

As for the background to choosing the colours, I choose bold colours. As you can see, primary colours are at the forefront, and then blended colours. Some of them speak to the sun, and some speak to the sky. The black used isn’t blended, though. I like to work with colours that are not tainted. I find them pure. And with the black, for example, like with my portraiture work, there isn’t any blue used. Usually, some artists blend blues with black. I don’t, as that makes the black diluted. I wanted to represent Africa with colour, the brightness, and excitement of being in Africa and being alive. Our sunsets, our skies, really to capture our environment – capturing what I see around me.

“The message is simple. The message is love, share, and care. The shoe is titled 'Dear Everyone'. So it's, ‘Dear everyone, do your part’. You know, dear everyone, love, dear everyone, care, dear everyone, share. I think the world will be changed by each of us playing our part” – Reggie Khumalo

What is the message you're getting across with the shoe?

Reggie Khumalo: The message is simple. The message is love, share, and care. The shoe is titled 'Dear Everyone'. So it's, "Dear everyone, do your part". You know, dear everyone, love, dear everyone, care, dear everyone, share. I think the world will be changed by each of us playing our part. Each one of us has a role to play, and we must play it. It's never left to someone to do; it's left to all of us to do. So with such a message, with someone walking around with a message like that, that's powerful, and that's beautiful. As I have spoken about Ubuntu in my work, I think that's what I wanted to talk about with this shoe. Anytime you put on these shoes, you're talking about Ubuntu. I am because you are; you are because I am. Dear everyone. We are all a huge village raising each other.

Who would you love to see wearing them?

Reggie Khumalo: Everybody! Absolutely everyone. I would like to see celebs and people who aren’t celebs, I mean like anyone who is a human being. If possible, aliens, I guess. I would like to see everyone wearing something that is very positive… we need that.

Would you collaborate with a fashion brand again?

Reggie Khumalo: Absolutely. I would love to, actually. I can imagine having one of my portrait figure paintings on a sweater, or on a pair of pants somehow, or even on a shoe. And my writing, some of my writing in terms of the words, in terms of Ubuntu, would be nice on a t-shirt. I think that would be beautiful. So yeah – I would like to collaborate with as many fashion houses and fashion brands as possible.