Artist Profile


Thomas Kgope

b. 1954, Delmas, Transvaal

Drawing on a wry sense of humour, Thomas Kgope fills his canvases with a spontaneous mix of traditional Ndebele patterns and caricaturized figures, which he scratches onto solid patches of colour. Kgope weaves myths, symbolism, and ritual into highly personalized narratives, often inserting slogans and anecdotes directly into the work. These running commentaries reference dreams, Ndebele myths, and personal experiences. In a quirky reflection on the art gallery scene for example, Kgope singles out Knight Galleries International and the exhibition African Encounters held in Toronto in 1994. The artist often places himself – and major events in his personal life – at the centre of his own work.

Like many artists in the present South Africa, Kgope tries to reconcile traditional African culture and western influences. He makes particular references to advertising and its effects on a largely uneducated black population in the townships. The shops plastered with signs that feature in many of Kgope’s works are a familiar sight to any resident or visitor to the townships of South Africa.

Although largely self-taught, Kgope has managed to become one of the country’s most successful commercial artists. He began his artistic involvement as a freelance photographer in the late 1970s. In 1985, having completed his training as an electrician, Kgope found himself fixing electrical wires at the studio of artist Norman Catherine. Encouraged by Catherine to explore his creative talents, Kgope turned to painting with oils, sculpting in a variety of materials, and fabricating ornate clothing. He was initially greatly taken with the work of Walter Battiss, before developing a highly personal style.

Kgope held his first exhibition in 1987 at the Waterkloof Preparatory School in Pretoria. He has had several individual shows at the Natalie Knight Gallery since, and has exhibited widely in South Africa and abroad. His work is owned by major cultural institutions such as the South African National Gallery and University of Fort Hare, as well as numerous private collectors. Kgope’s work was singled out by the prestigious French publication, Revue Noire, in its 1994 edition devoted to South Africa.

Education and Training:

1968/78: worked as freelance photographer.

1985/86: Trained and worked as electrician.

1986: Worked as an assistant to Norman Catherine, who taught him painting.

Solo Exhibitions:

1987: Waterkloof Preparatory School [Pretoria]

1988: Natalie Knight Gallery [Johannesburg]

1990: Natalie Knight Gallery [Johannesburg]

1992: Ndebele Images Part II, Natalie Knight Gallery [Johannesburg]

1994: Ndebele Images of the 90's, Natalie Knight Gallery [Johannesburg]

Group Exhibitions

1988: Neglected Tradition, Johannesburg Art Gallery [Johannesburg]

1988: Natalie Knight Gallery [Johannesburg]

1989/90: African Encounters, Dome Gallery [New York], Alex Gallery [Washington], Knight Galleries International [Toronto]
Save the Children exhibition [Boston]

1991: Pictures as History, Standard Bank National Drawing Competition, Grahamstown and touring South African cities Cape Town Trienniale, [Cape Town]

1993: Cultural Diversity, Natalie Knight Gallery [Johannesburg]
South African Art, World Trade Centre, Knight Galleries International [Toronto]

1994: Windows on the New South Africa, World Trade Centre, KGI [Toronto]

1995: 8 Artists from South Africa, Centre for the Arts [San Francisco]

1996: South Africa 11: Tradition in Transition, October Gallery [London, UK]
7 Artists from the New South Africa, Bomani Gallery [San Francisco]
6 Artists from South Africa, Gallery Hanel [Frankfurt], toured Germany
Tomorrow is Now, Knight Galleries International [Toronto, Vancouver]

1997: Tommy Motswai, Alfred Thoba and Thomas Kgope, Natalie Knight Gallery
The Writing on the Wall, Rosebank Mall [Johannesburg] as part of promotion of film Basquiat
Ndebele Images – Then and Now,’ National Arts Club [New York]
Images of Freedom. Knight Galleries International [Toronto]

1998: Art of the Ndebele: Evolution of a Cultural Identity, Atlanta International Museum of Art and Design [Atlanta, USA]

Awards, Publications:

1987: Commissioned by Broederstroom Press to design poster for publication: Art, the Independent Review.

1991: work used as illustration for invitation to Standard Bank exhibition Pictures as History

1992: Images of Man: Contemporary South African Black Art and Artists, by Ej de Jager, published by Fort Hare University Press: 2-page feature

1994: Four-page colour feature in Revue Noire

1996-96: Grant by Pollock-Krasner Foundation in New York; featured on Syfrets calendar with Speelman Mahlangu


University of Fort Hare
William Humphrey Art Museum, Kimberley
South African National Gallery
Private collections of foreign journalists