“Art is an action of life,” says Richard Kupeta, standing next to his colourful paintings. The 35-year-old artist’s style is a unique combination of realism, bold strokes and unexpected textures. Each painting feels distinct, portraying deep emotion. Kupeta exhibits on a pavement in Tyrone Avenue, Parkview, Johannesburg. He’s been selling his art there for eight years. Paintings may be part of a creative life, but for the man behind the broad smile, they are also a way of earning a living and feeding a family.
Art is an integral part of being human. Africa is home to some of the oldest and most interesting creative artefacts, dating as far back as 70 000 BCE (before the current era). African art is historically functional, tied to spirituality, decoration, communication, expressions of joy and ways of combating hard times. In contrast, the mainstream art market is a product of Western capitalism, a space where art is created to be displayed in upmarket galleries and judged by art critics who deem it worthy or otherwise.
During apartheid, the galleries were the exclusive reserve of the white-educated art world. The historical effect of this can still be felt today. But noticeable shifts are happening as young and established black artists, curators, writers and cultural workers resist the white walls of the gallery and reject the institutional oppression of the art world. Artists who display their work on the streets highlight the need for conversations about the class divide in “high art”, which is inaccessible and exclusive. Reacting to this, people like Kupeka are finding alternatives, making their own spaces and paths, forged by an inclusive understanding of creativity.
Art finds avenues
The art world is not easy to get into, especially for those without the “right” education, money and connections. But art finds other ways.
Kupeta was born and grew up in Mbari, Zimbabwe. He came to Johannesburg in 2008 and paints to support his wife and three children back home. Kupeta has no formal art education, but he knew from a young age that he wanted to be an artist when he watched his two older brothers, Allen and Lovemore, paint. He credits them with teaching him the skills he developed.
“They are very good artists,” he says, “and all three of us are very different. Not better or worse, just unique.” Kupeta is a one-man art factory and does everything from scratch. He makes his own frames and stretches canvases. Some are made from interesting dress fabrics he finds in town. The patterns show through the paint and become part of the artworks. “The paint is the most expensive part, especially when I use oil paint,” he explains.
He does mostly portraits. “I like to paint what people feel,” he says. “I see everyday people. I get inspired by their moods, and I want to capture that.” He turns to a painting of a small boy with an intense expression in his eyes. “He’s seen what the world is all about.” The boy turns out to be his young son.
“My style is my own. When you start doing art, it’s important to develop your unique style that works for you, but also sells. And it’s good to do South African scenes and subjects. But I’m always inspired by other artists I work with.”
Selling art to pay the bills
“During the month, it’s often quiet,” admits Kupeta. “Month end is where I make sales. Especially during December.” His clientele is mixed, but he relies heavily on the tourists he meets on this popular restaurant and entertainment strip. He also gets some commissions, mostly to paint family portraits. “It’s challenging because sometimes I don’t make sales and my family suffers. It can be very unpredictable.”
Kupeta is versatile. He depicts urban scenes alongside cartoons and “fun” drawings for kids.
“Here’s my six-year-old daughter,” he says as he points at a colourful image of a little girl with letters of the alphabet making up the background. She looks like she is pouting. “See, she didn’t want to do her homework. That’s why she has a long face.”
Apparently, she is the budding artist in the family, always wanting to steal his brushes and do her own painting. “She always disturbs me when I work. She likes art too much. I’m happy about it. It shows that art is hereditary.”
Kupeta has some pieces up on commission in upmarket coffee shops and has displayed in a small gallery in the Johannesburg suburb of Norscot. On the street, he sets the prices low, starting at R300 for cartoons and going up to R3 000 for the bigger and more time-consuming portraits.
It’s not much compared to what an artist could earn selling through formal outlets. But for Kupeta, art is a job that gives him a solid routine. On Sundays and Mondays, he paints in his studio in the corner of his home in Diepsloot. The rest of the week, he sells on the street.
A collaborative approach
“One day I want to open my own gallery,” he says, “then I can spend more time working and also show other artists there. That would be great.”
Kupeta places more faith in collaboration than in being part of institutions. “Young artists starting up must make sure to engage with other artists, learn from them and create spaces for making art together. Alone you keep doing the same thing. Working together you learn from others, you teach others. You create variety. You get seen. Then the public can see the true value of art.”
Things are tough for artists right now, he says. “Our prices have to be low, and it’s hard to make a living. But I’m still here and still painting.” He smiles proudly as he says this.
Richard Kupeta is available for sales and commissions on 084 474 5878.