The journey of Nkoali Nawa – from miner to artist

A strong degree of empathy for doing what it takes to survive in the townships is what Nkoali Nawa says is the driving force behind documentation of daily life around him. We caught up with the artist to speak about his artistic process and his journey so far. 

Hair Salon Recruiter. Oil on canvas.

Tell us about ‘The Potatoes’, a work currently featuring in a Nando’s campaign that’s all about connecting guests with original Southern African art?

I’m originally from Welkom and this is where ‘The Potatoes’ is set. Welkom is a goldfield area and the economy there runs on mining, but now some of the mines have closed down and township people, many without any education, need a means to survive. A way to stay alive is to sell goods, typically at informal stalls set up on the pavement. This guy got a stall in town. As I was passing by I was fascinated by the movement of people going to his stall and wondered why they were flocking. When I looked closer, I realised he was selling giant potatoes unlike any I’d ever seen. People were flocking to buy them. They were huge and only R80 a bag – so cheap! The economy in Welkom is tough, as only a few mines are functioning, and people, especially women, were delighted to get giant potatoes for that price!  That man was struggling to make a living, and I was glad to witness this good day for him.

Nkoali Nawa. The Potatoes, 1200 x 1000mm.

What does your process look like?

I go out and engage with a scene. I talk to the people. I feel the space. Once I’m hooked then I take a photograph so that I can document the moment. In my life growing up in a township struggling to make a living has been part of my own experience so I feel empathy for people in similar situations, and it’s important to me to show their lives to the world. I paint from photographs. My paintings are very honest. They document unquestionable situations and tell my story of township life that I witness on a daily basis.

Untitled. Oil on canvas.

Gugulethu Mall. Oil on canvas.

Untitled. Oil on canvas.

Inside my landlord’s house. Oil on canvas.

Can you tell us about your journey so far? 

It was hard for township guys to get jobs in the mines, but in 1986 I got an opportunity to work underground. The mines were looking for people who weighed 50kg. I weighed 45kg so I tucked a hammer in my pants for the weigh-in to get the job. I went from miner, to mine security, and then went to the Chamber of Mines where I trained for a year and got my blasting certificate. But art always remained my true and burning passion. I was raised by a single mother and she was determined I should use my blasting certificate to earn a living. She gave me money to travel to the mines in Orkney in the North West Province to apply for a job – instead I went to Bloemfontein and used all the money to register for art school. The journey from there has had its highs and lows in terms of breaks and exposure as an artist, but overall it has been one of survival. For a time I left art and moved into education, but recently Nando’s provided me with a platform to come back into the art world.

Untitled. Oil on canvas.

You’re a member of Nando’s Artists Society. How has this impacted your life as an artist?

Without Nando’s Artists Society it wouldn’t be possible for me pursue my art full time and to make a living. As part of the programme we have monthly hand-ins of artworks where a curator from Yellowwoods Art critiques our work, and, based on merit, selects work to buy into the Nando’s Art Collection. I go to every hand-in at Union House in Cape Town with the hope of making it. Apart from the access-to-market opportunities, when I go there I am part of a whole community of very different artists facing similar challenges. It’s good to connect and as we move around during the hand-in we discuss our lives, share ideas, and see each other’s new techniques, which allows us an experience that we can grow from. My work has definitely developed technically as a result of this opportunity – and I’ve made friends with other artists who I visit in their studios between hand-ins. So Nando’s Artist’s Society is a platform that allows us artists to grow in all sorts of directions.

Creative Block hand in with Nkoali Nawa.

You recently created a collection that documented one of these artwork hand-ins?

Yes, I’m vigilant and curious, and when I feel a spiritual connection with a scene then I paint it. Last submission I was looking around and I had this spiritual feeling that I needed to photograph and paint this reality that has brought me back into my desire and my wish to live as an artist.

Handing in work. Oil on canvas. 

At the hand-in. Oil on canvas.

Stand a chance to win an original artwork!

Buy a Nando’s 1/4 chicken single side + 330ml Liqui-Fruit for R54.90 and SMS #nandosART, your name and email to 32141, and you could win an original artwork by your choice of four blazing hot talents – Nkoali Nawa, Swain Hoogervorst, Xolile Mtakatya, or Karen Cronje.

*T&C’s apply, SMS costs R1, for full T&Cs visit

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