WATCH | Self-taught artist goes international with first solo exhibition in Belgium

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  • Ennock Mlangeni, a self-trained visual artist discovered his passion for art in Grade 6 through drawing comic characters.
  • The Free State-based artist's career has taken off in a big way - he's currently hosting his first-ever international art exhibition in Belgium's Uitstalling contemporary art gallery.
  • His biggest dream is to open an art academy, to give disadvantaged children, especially those in his community, a platform to study art. 

When life handed self-taught visual artist Ennock Mlangeni lemons, he made lemonade. The 29-year-old went from creating artwork in a shack in Sasolburg, Free State, to hosting his first solo exhibition in Belgium's Uitstalling contemporary art gallery. This, after being told by South African galleries that he wasn't good enough.

The artist's passion and love for art began at the age of 12 when he started drawing comic characters from his favourite television show Dragon Ball Z. Mlangeni told News24 that he eventually turned his hobby into a career after winning art competitions in high school, which helped him realise that he was good at it.

"We didn't have art as a subject in school because I went to a public school. So, I was competing with people that had art as a subject at school but still, I won. That's when I realised that I'm good at this thing and I decided to pursue and build a career out of it," he said. 

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However, Mlangeni had to find other ways to pursue his dream of being an artist since he could not afford to study after matric.

He said:

I lost my parents when I was very young, so I had to move in with my grandmother and we depended on the money she made selling clothes she made and goods she sold as a street vendor.

"I have always been a person that loves to experiment because when I grew up, I lacked materials. So anything at my disposal I would use it, just in the name of making art and not stop making art," he added.

Mlangeni told News24 that social media was to thank for fast-tracking his career as his piece on the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela went viral on Twitter in 2017. 

People really took notice in 2018 after he created an artwork of award-winning DJ Black Coffee with Nescafe's Ricoffy.

Ricoffy in the mix

The painter said the idea came after he mistakenly spilt coffee on another piece he was working on. This ultimately led to Ricoffy and its parent company Nestlé sponsoring Mlangeni's new workspace.

He moved his art studio from a shack to a 12 metre long metal container. 

"That Black Coffee piece put me on a level where I never thought I would be. It made people realise my potential and take me seriously as an artist," he said.

Today Nestlé and the Free State-based artist have a long-standing partnership.  

"They have been involving me in other projects, especially if they have to do with things of awareness," he said.   

Solo exhibition abroad

Mlangeni was currently hosting his first-ever solo exhibition in Belgium, where he's showcasing some 25 pieces of his best work, in a series titled The Butterfly Finds Its Wings. The exhibition was scheduled to run until 4 October. 

"Just like a butterfly that starts as a caterpillar and grows into a butterfly, I am expressing my journey as an artist and I am growing as an artist, and this is the reintroduction of Ennock Mlangeni," he said.  

Mlangeni got his big break after donating one of his artworks to a charity for auction. The piece was bought by art collector and Uitstalling contemporary art gallery owner, Danny Weckx.

The South African artist said he was overwhelmed and surprised by the response he had received since the opening of his exhibition last month, saying:

I was not expecting that people would love my work so much. I have never reached that kind of level as an artist, so this shows that I can make it as an artist on an international level. Also, already five pieces have been sold.

Unfortunately, Mlangeni could not see the fruits of his labour and relish in the success of seeing his exhibition in person, because of travel restrictions due to Covid-19. 

"The plan was also to be there and be part of the exhibition. It was going to be a nice experience for me since this was my first ever exhibition. I couldn't go due to Covid-19, but I am grateful that the exhibition continued and I am getting a great response. That's a blessing to me," he said.  

Future plans

However, the self-taught artist told News24 that he never received the same love here at home, with many South African galleries rejecting him. 

He said:

When I started, I used to apply to galleries and ask them to host my work, but they would tell me I am not good enough or my work is not of good quality, until I decided to do things on my own.

Mlangeni said although he started receiving invitations from South African projects, he hadn't accepted any yet because of current projects he was working on with Weckx.

However, he was looking forward to having his work showcased in local galleries soon.  

Mlangeni's journey and humble beginnings made him passionate about making sure that he gave other disadvantaged children in his community the platform and opportunities he never had growing up.

The painter said his ultimate goal was to own an art academy. 

"I want to give them a platform that I never had so they can express themselves and do what they love," he said.  

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