|Nat Ntwayakgosi Mokgosi was born on February 2, 1946 in Newclare, Johannesburg. He went to Meadowlands Secondary School for his secondary education. As a teenager, Mokgosi painted on anything he could find including walls and his school books. As early as standard four he was presenting symbolized work, even on his classroom walls where he drew an ordinary hen with a number of chicks. The work was meaningless to most of his fellow pupils, until he explained that the picture symbolized the warm parental care they all enjoyed.
A talented musician, in 1965 he worked for Ricky and The Diamonds Pop Group as a guitarist. In 1966 he went to the Jubilee Art Centre where he studied art under Ezrom Legae and Bill Hart, becoming a full time artist in 1971.
Initially Mokgosi’s medium was watercolour and gouache and most of his paintings bearing a religious theme. With time, Mokgosi focused on oils and producing work reflecting his surroundings and capturing the experiences of blacks in the townships. It is his belief that an artist should capture his surroundings.
Mokgosi was very much influenced by Ephraim Ngatane, one of the established black artists. Ngatane’s works depicted township life - the women selling fruit and vegetables in the streets, drunken “clevers” (city slickers), “bantu” police delivering summonses to Saturday’s evildoers, and unemployed old ladies cleaning “skops” (sheep heads) for sale”. Other artists, like Julian Motau and Dumile Mogaji, served as an inspiration to Mokgosi and when these two artists went to live in the USA, Mokgosi has fond memories of them both saying, “These artists succeeded in depicting the evils and the ills of the South African times in their work - with pass raids being one of the main themes of the time”.
Marginalized by the apartheid era, black artists could not gain necessary exposure for their work as white galleries often slammed their doors when it comes to black artists, some holding the view that black art had to sell in the townships where these black artists belonged. This clearly meant that there was no space for them in the white world to showcase their work. But black people in the townships could not afford to buy those paintings, their tiny houses being too small anyway. Mokgosi notes that, “Blacks tend to believe that art collecting is solely for whites. That is why I sell my works cheaper to them, to interest them.”
When black artists were given a chance to exhibit their work, it wasn’t ideal. Notes one art critic in 1979, during one of Makgosi’s exhibitions, “An excellent exhibition by Nathaniel Magkosi (at Lidchi Gallery) suffers from being crammed into too small a space. Because of this, Magkosi’s less-effective pieces could have been left out to make way for the more assured compositions, such as the highly effective triptych”.
A patriotic South African, while he was offered a scholarship to study art at the Pratt Institute in California in the USA, he refused when he realized he would be expected to remain in the USA and return the institution’s investment through the teaching process. He chose to remain in South Africa and instead worked towards the upliftment of black artists. Over time he offered to teach on a voluntary basis at Johannesburg’s Open School where he worked with other artists like James Mathoba, Joe Motsiri and Percy Sedumedi; and in December 1987, he formed the Co-operative of Black Relevant Artists (Cobra) with specific focus on the problems experienced by black artists. “Our aim was to get the community involved in art. I believe that there are potential artists in the community who through sheer misfortune have not made it. We have to commit ourselves to reviving our arts, which seem to have disappeared.”
Mokgosi has exhibited both nationally and internationally, including at the Michelangelo Gallery, Lidchi Gallery and Gallery 21, all of which are in Johannesburg. His work is found at the University of Fort Hare, University of Zululand , the Haenggi Foundation Inc, the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the South African National Art Gallery in Cape Town. Today, Makgosi lives in Soweto and continues to work as an artist.
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