Home Is Where the Art Is

Ludovic Nkoth ’18 explores themes of identity and belonging in his continent-spanning work.

By Elizabeth Anderson

Ludovic Nkoth

Ludovic Nkoth ‘18 was a student at Dorman High School when he visited his first art museum, the High Museum in Atlanta, on a class field trip.

Now one of his paintings will be joining the High’s collection.

It still feels a little unreal to Nkoth, a Cameroon native who came to the United States as a teenager speaking no English but carrying with him a passion for art developed during his childhood. Although Nkoth didn’t know any artists growing up, his environment was full of color and movement, providing plenty of inspiration for a child processing the world around him.

Don't Take This
Don't Take This
“Even though the art doesn’t resemble what we have in this part of the world, I grew up around color and art and patterns,” he says. “Especially in a tropical country, the plants are always colorful.”Nkoth says he’s been drawing as far back as he can remember. He never had an art teacher, so he taught himself through regular practice. An anime fan, he would work on replicating the kinds of lines and motion he saw, and a sketchbook was a constant companion wherever he went.

“There was this hotel on a golf course, and I used to sketch that hotel almost every day,” he recalls. “That kept growing into something, and I started sketching family members.”

When he was 13, his father, who had settled in South Carolina, brought him to live in Spartanburg. The culture shock was huge. No one around Nkoth, apart from his father, spoke French, and for his first two years in America, Nkoth didn’t attend school while he worked to learn English well enough to enroll. Drawing became his way to make sense of his new home, and remember the one he had left.

He also discovered hip hop, and would repeat the words he heard to practice his pronunciation. Even today, he notes, laughing, his English has a slightly lyrical inflection that his friends tease him about.

When he started at Dorman High School, he kept to himself at first, but other students quickly became curious about the kid with the sketchbook. “I felt like I belonged for once, and it was through this art that was already so embedded into my idea of self,” he says. “I wanted to fit in with my peers, and art was the only thing they understood. So art was my first language at that moment.”

Nkoth also found a studio space near downtown Spartanburg and would go there after school to paint. His preferred medium has always been acrylics, which dry quickly and capture the immediacy of his fast-moving thoughts. “The idea sticks when I want it to stick and I can move on to the next idea,” he says.

Mask No. 3
When it came time to consider college, Nkoth faced a tough choice. He was accepted at some art schools, but the cost was beyond what he could afford. Rather than go without a college degree at all, he enrolled at USC Upstate (then USC Spartanburg), despite the lack of an art program.Nkoth admits it was a little tough to find the right fit, given his desire to be an artist. He began as a graphic arts major, thinking that could be a backup career path. While he enjoyed the work, he wanted to do something that was more about satisfying his own vision rather than a client’s. He switched to art education, but that, too, wasn’t right, even though he loved sharing his enthusiasm with others.

He finally settled on interdisciplinary studies, which allowed him to take courses in a wide range of subjects that interested him, particularly art history.

Along the way, Nkoth found support from several professors, including Mark Flowers and Jane Nodine, both of whom encouraged him and gave him creative freedom on his projects. As in high school, Nkoth would go to his studio after classes to work on his paintings. Art, he explains, is like a sport, requiring constant practice and discipline, and going to the studio every day was his training. “I believe practice makes better, that’s the only way to master a skill,” he says.

By the time he was a senior, Nkoth decided to try for graduate school. He was offered a full scholarship and a stipend from Clemson University’s College of Architecture, but decided instead to attend Hunter College in New York. The offer was not quite as generous, he says, but the chance to live and work in an art mecca was too good to pass up. From the moment he arrived in New York, Nkoth felt more at home than he had in awhile. The energy and vibrancy of the city reminded him immediately of Cameroon.

“When I’m walking around the market in Cameroon, everyone is trying to grab you to sell something, the streets have a stall on every corner, everyone is always trying to get somewhere to do something,” he says. “That ecosystem is what really gets my blood pumping.”

At Hunter, Nkoth was surrounded by other artists for the first time, many of them graduates of undergraduate art programs, and he realized they knew a lot more than he did about how to negotiate the art world. Undaunted, and determined to make a career, Nkoth began hustling to get his name out.

“I was at every art show, every talk, I was sending messages to every gallery around, to every curator,” he says. “I was trying to get everyone that was anyone to come to my studio to see what I was making.”

He also began doing shows, both solo and as part of groups. The vibrant colors and imagery of Cameroon are central to his paintings – families shopping at the marketplace, a group of soldiers, animal masks. His works also include portraits of family members and people he’s met in New York. Some are painted directly from memory, others are inspired by childhood memories, Nkoth says.

For Nkoth, painting is not a passive activity but rather a full-body experience that engages all the senses. When he goes to the studio, he says, he always has roasted peanuts and a good bottle of red wine on hand. Then he turns on some hip hop – “at the loudest setting on my speaker” – and proceeds to dance and sing while working. “I have to feel all the elements,” he says.
Generally, Nkoth says, he works on several paintings at the same time. He compares the process to cooking a meal (which he also loves to do), where he’s adjusting the elements of each dish so they’re all distinct but complementary. Something he tries on one painting might not work, but he’ll see where it can work on another.

Painting is also how Nkoth continues to explore his identity as someone who both belongs to and is estranged from two different places. The first and only time he’s been back to Cameroon, in 2018, Nkoth said it was like stepping into the house you grew up in and finding it had been completely remodeled. “My work speaks a lot on the displacement of the body – my body – during childhood, and what that does to the brain as an adult,” he says.In some of Nkoth’s more recent paintings, past and present are never far apart. An exhibit of his works in Italy earlier this year depicted the harrowing journey African migrants take across the Mediterranean to get to Europe. Images of migrants crowded into inflatable rafts surrounded by bodies being swallowed by waves allude to African lives lost on slave-trading journeys. It’s a reminder, Nkoth says, of how the conditions that drive migrants to flee their homes today can be traced back to the lasting impact of slavery and colonialism.

Between painting and gallery shows, Nkoth keeps up a busy schedule. He is represented by two galleries, the Luce Gallery in Turin, Italy, and François Ghebaly in Los Angeles, and has had shows at both this year, despite the challenges of the pandemic. He completed his master’s degree. Painting and the business of running a studio fill his days.

Sometimes, with everything going on, it can be easy to forget he’s done things he thought would take another decade or two to accomplish, Nkoth says. But he’s trying to take the time to be more present, and to keep creating work he’s proud of. “Everything that is meant to come will come,” he says.