No need for a camera: Nyanga artist uses a ballpoint pen just as well

Themba Mkhangeli achieves photographic realism with only a BIC pen

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Photo of a man
Themba Mkhangeli with one of his portraits in the tiny room where he works and lives in Nyanga. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

Looking at a portrait by Themba Mkhangeli, you would probably not guess it was done with little more than a ballpoint pen — and a lot of talent. The self-taught 23-year-old artist who lives in Nyanga East is busy planning his first solo exhibition.

Mkhangeli says his love for drawing started when he was about ten years old back in Julukuqu village near Mthatha.

“Drawing was what my brother and I loved doing … We used to compete with each other. It was all about enjoyment,” says Mkhangeli.

In 2007, he came to Cape Town to join his mother who had a meat stall in Nyanga.

“I only found out about art in Linge Primary School when I started doing Grade 5, here in Mau-Mau in Nyanga, [and] when my teachers kept asking me why I am not taking my talent further. I was so confused because I did not know what they meant,” he says.

Later, Mkhangeli went to New Eisleben High School, but because art was not taught as a subject, he did mathematics and physical science. After matric, he enrolled at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology [CPUT] for a design course.

“I focused on drawing, so I failed my first year twice because of theory. After failing the second time, I dropped out [of CPUT]. But I did obtain substantial knowledge about art because we had a chance to visit galleries,” says Mkhangeli.

He started uploading his drawings and paintings to his Facebook page. In 2016, he got a call from an art gallery, which then exhibited his work. Interest in his work increased after that.

Mkhangeli uses an ordinary blue ballpoint pen. “When I start a drawing I use a brand new pen because as the ink goes down, the pen becomes darker. I prefer a blue pen because a black pen is too dark, especially when it comes to doing the finer details like a person’s eyes.”

Mostly he does portraits of people, usually from photos. He also paints in oils. He says when he was younger he liked to draw animals. He still always incorporates an insect or other animal in his portraits.

Mkhangeli does not have a studio but works in a tiny shack next to his mother’s house in Mpinga, Nyanga. Nine people live in her house.

“I can’t even fit a desk in this room. I work on my bed. It would be great to get a space somewhere to work in, and also to teach kids around the community about drawing, especially since they’ve been asking me to teach them,” he says.

Mkhangeli was placed second in the national BIC Pen Art Master Talent Search competition in 2017.

He says at first his family didn’t care much about art. His mother would shout at him for locking himself in his shack all day and drawing.

“Now they see that this can take me far,” he says.

Themba Mkhangeli’s portrait of his friend, Rwandan fashion designer Amza Eli Niyonzima. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

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