College of Human Sciences

Portrait of the artist as a young man

Ammi Ryke (Archivist), Prof Mandla Makhanya (Principal and VC), Sakhi Simelane (Chairperson of Council), Nhlanhla Nhlapo (Artist), Prof Michael Temane (Acting Registrar), and Dr Gwen Miller (Visual Arts specialist)

Unisa has a 145-year-old tradition of commemorating its chancellors, vice-chancellors, and chairs of council in formal portraits. This year it was the turn of Sakhi Simelane, the current Chairperson of Council, to be immortalised in oil.

An official portrait commissioning committee was established at the start of 2018 under the chairmanship of Professor Michael Temane, acting registrar. The rest of the committee comprised branding manager Marius Bosch, archivist Ammi Ryke, assistant to the registrar Makabongwe Khanyile, and Visual Arts specialist Dr Gwen Miller.

According to Miller, the committee formulated a policy, and, after identifying several artists, invited them to present digital portfolios of paintings they had done. From these, they drew up a shortlist and interviewed a handful of artists, also scrutinising actual works. “We searched for technical skills such as masterful paint manipulation and successful illusion of form and luminosity within the works,” she said.

The chosen artist was Nhlanhla Nhlapo, not only because he met the criteria but also because of the strong presence he managed to create in his portraits. During the making process, the committee paid three visits to Nhlapo’s studio in Johannesburg to ensure progress, discuss technical questions, and approve the standard.

The Chair of Council’s commissioned portrait was unveiled at Unisa on 25 April 2018.

Detail of portrait

Who is Nhlanhla Nhlapo?

Nhlapo was born and raised in Namahadi in Frankfort in the Free State by his mother. “To be raised by a single parent, and especially a domestic worker, wasn’t easy at all,” he says. “As a child, one needed to be aware of responsibility. And, also, I too didn’t want to be walking the same steps of my parents, never mind apartheid problems and faults.”

He first came to Pretoria in 2009, two years after he matriculated, to make inquiries about fine arts studies. After working on commissions from his friends to put together his registration fee, he enrolled in 2012 at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) for a four-year BTech in Fine Arts. “While I was a student, I made my cash flow by doing small commissions for friends and people who loved my work. I also got assistance from my mother and from friends.”

Nhlapo also did part-time tutoring of students at TUT, teaching drawing, and also small drawing workshops and art talks with primary school learners at Frankfort. “I found these workshops necessary because Frankfort is a small town that is not much informed about art and the role of the artist in society. To me, it is vital to groom the next generation, not only of artists, but also of art collectors and investors.”

Nhlapo’s first big commission was of gallery owner Stuart Trent in 2014, who is compiling a collection of images of himself. “He was and still is a big supporter of my work. I did his portrait in a red cape, which was part of the exhibition, Me, Myself and I—Stuart Trent portraits, that was recently held at the Pretoria Art Museum.”

In the past four to five years, Nhlapo has been shown in a number of group shows. “A particular highlight was meeting Louis Jansen van Vuuren on social media. Since then, I’ve been showing with him at a number of exhibitions. He has introduced me to so many amazing collectors of art. I am currently planning a residency in France where he stays and works.”

Some of the members of the official portrait commissioning committee: Prof Michael Temane (Acting Registrar), Ammi Ryke (Archivist), and Dr Gwen Miller (Visual Arts specialist), with the artist, Nhlanhla Nhlapo, in his studio

Nevertheless, the Unisa commission to paint the Chair of Council was one of the most outstanding and important works Nhlapo has embarked on to date. “I was shocked to be appointed as an artist to paint the chairperson. I believe that after long hardships, great things will be excavated and opportunities still await. Although it’s been very difficult to make a stand against many odds in life, my life experiences have always inspired me to move on,” he concluded.

*Compiled by Sharon Farrell