Trevor Makhoba

Trevor Makhoba’s art is uniquely grounded in his experience of life and contemporary events in KwaZulu-Natal. He reflects on this experience, as Andy Mason has noted, with elements of the satirical ‘that combines social realism with the surreal’.1Another recent observation on his work locates it within the traditions of black art in KwaZulu-Natal, as an extension of the work of Gerard Bhengu (qv.) for example, as ‘the persistence of a romantic realism’ that reflects a “popular language that is accessible and lucid”.2 At the same time his work is a good example of how black artists have left the ‘struggle aesthetic’ behind them and embraced current issues, dealing with the realities of a highly complex and diverse multicultural society. These new themes are well-reflected in the many examples of his work in the Campbell Smith Collection, ranging from gender issues and sexual taboos to HIV/AIDS, recent history and the spiralling crime rate in post-apartheid South Africa. The strong tendency to narrative in his art is rooted in what Juliet Leeb-du Toit refers to as ‘contemporary oral discourse which functions as a vital vocabulary that relates cultural, political and personal experience’.

Makhoba seems to have inherited his artistic talents from his mother who was a school teacher who also drew and painted. Her encouragement and guidance were all that he received in terms of art training, and he was ultimately largely self-taught as an artist. He was educated at several schools at Umlazi, where his family moved to live in 1964. He did not complete his matriculation and left school to follow a variety of jobs, ranging from being a prison warder, insurance representative and working for companies like I & J Fisheries and the Dunlop Tyre Company. Besides his artistic interests he also developed his calling as a musician, playing the organ and the saxophone. He formed a popular gospel music group known as The persuaders and made money by performing at weddings and funerals.

In 1987 Makhoba made the decision to focus full-time on his art and began hawking his paintings door-to-door as well as on the Durban beachfront. Here he had a number of scrapes with the law. He struggled to make a living until 1990 when he was advised by a friend to show his work to Jo Thorpe at the African Art Centre in Durban. This proved to be a major turning point in his career, for with Thorpe’s help his work was promoted more professionally and his status as an artist rose almost immediately. Assured of a better income and not having to market his work on his own, he was able to devote more time to painting. His command of the oil technique advanced a great deal. Between 1990 and 1994 he broadened his skills by attending workshops in printmaking under Jan Jordaan and Marlene Wasserman. In 1994 Makhoba, on his own initiative, launched the Philange Art Project in Umlazi to benefit about 18 young artists by providing materials and training for them. The name was derived from his own Zulu name Phila, meaning ‘live’ and nge (with) art. The impact that his work and success have had on a younger generation of artists is well-illustrated in the Campbell Smith Collection in the cases of Sibusiso Duma (qv.), Sithembiso Sibisi (qv.), Joseph Manana (qv.) and Themba Siwela (qv.).

Bruce Campbell Smith was on very familiar terms with Makhoba, and this enabled him to make some impressive acquisitions for his collection. Campbell Smith has written a personal account of his dialogues with Makhoba, during which he was able to garner important information about his art and life. In this process stories about his childhood emerged which give deeper insight into Makhoba’s processes as an artist. One of these involved the fact that he was an epileptic as a child, and that in later life he sometimes experienced ‘altered states’ or events which were ultimately reflected in his art.

Campbell Smith’s own assessment of Makhoba’s artistic importance is worth noting in the context of his collection:


As a painter, his artistic contribution to the milieu in which he lived is immeasurable. In my opinion, this painting tradition was started by the pioneer artists of KwaZulu-Natal such as Simon Mnguni, Arthur Butelezi and Gerard Bhengu. Trevor often worked in a similar idiom to these early Zulu artists, a fact which needs to be confirmed and which warrants further exploration by researchers … Whereas the pioneer artists illustrated rural themes, Trevor extends that tradition by introducing urban imagery into his paintings, often joining the former with the latter. He celebrates Zulu culture much as those earlier painters did, but with a zest that adds an extra dimension to his art, and which consequently elevates it.

Exhibitions at the KZNSA

Mating Birds Vol.2
Main, Mezzanine and Media galleries