As a child, Nokukhanya Langa ’13 decorated rocks with crayons and got her hands sticky with papier-mâché. After school, she scrambled to the classroom chalkboard to draw spokes of yellow sun radiating down on kid-renditions of people.
On museum jaunts with her mom and older sister, Langa viewed the paintings of the “masters,” an artistic canon dominated by white, European men. She didn’t know any professional artists, and it never occurred to her that the work of a young, Black, female painter could hang beside those classics.
Still, she felt driven to draw. When an older cousin who lived with her family hunched over a school art assignment, Langa stared, fascinated with his work.
“[Art] wasn’t a hobby; I was obsessed by it,” she says. “I was fixated with anything related to drawing or painting. My earliest memories were of arts-and-crafts projects. My mother wanted us to use our imaginations.”
That was in Clinton, Maryland, where Langa was born to an American mother and a South African father, a political exile from apartheid. But when that country’s system of racial segregation and brutality ended in the early 1990s, the family returned to her father’s birthplace.
She lived in South Africa from age 5 to 12, then returned to the United States. The culture jolt was internal: “Oh, I’m not really as American as I thought I was. In America, there are really sharp lines racially. In South Africa, I was in the majority, but not in the US. It was hard to find common ground to get along with other kids.”
Drawing and painting grounded her: Langa, 31, who is “Nana” to her family and “Noku” to friends, took summer art classes during high school. At 17, she knew she wanted to study art in college.
By that time, she’d been to seven or eight different schools between first grade and 12th. There were gaps in her education; there was more she wanted to learn outside of the art studio. “I decided to go to Moravian, where I’d have a liberal arts education and take courses outside my art degree.”
The art department was traditional and rigorous. Langa remembers “hours and hours painting still lifes” and honing her skill with figure drawing. “I appreciate how much time was spent making sure we had a good foundational base of form, light, and material. I was cultivating something I would carry for years.”
Even in introductory classes, Langa’s work stood out, says Angela Fraleigh, professor of art and head of the studio track. “She was incredibly skilled, talented, and smart. She’s an incredible draftsperson.”
Outside the art room, Langa hung out with classmates who were passionate about political science and education. “I took theology courses and thought, ‘This is engaging my brain in a different way than in my art courses.’”
She also ran track and field, excelling as a hurdler, and that rigor carried over to her art. “When I made art, I found I could push myself further, work very long hours because I had the discipline track had given me—how to be uncomfortable and work through something. Track also gave me this flow state, which I sometimes get when I’m doing art.” But it wasn’t always easy to be a Black woman with a globe-spanning history in a majority-white environment. Langa’s high school was racially and ethnically diverse; Moravian was a sharp contrast. “The first year, I wondered if it was a good fit for me.”
But she stayed, found friends, and considers those four years part of her catalog of crucial life experiences. “With each one, it adds to your library of how to get along with people who are different from you, how to get by in situations that may not feel all that comfortable.”
By the time she graduated, Langa knew she would pursue art somehow. She’d heard all the disheartening counsel—“You’ll never make money; you’ll need a ‘real job’ ”—and plunged ahead. She calls it a kind of faith. Delusion. And obsession.
“I had this brazen confidence, the feeling that I had nothing to lose. I was never in it for the money. But some things, you’re just so into it you never think about the longevity. You almost have to be a little bit crazy.”
When Langa was a sophomore, her mother moved to India for work; Langa joined her after graduation and lived there for three years before starting a master’s degree at the Frank Mohr Institute in the Netherlands. That’s where her work took a sharp turn. For years, she’d been refining her technical skills with traditional media—graphite on paper, oil paint— and figure drawing. “But I felt frustrated. I didn’t know how to do anything other than draw and paint technically. I didn’t know if I was making art.”
During her master’s program, Langa did an exchange at Hunter College in New York. It was too cumbersome to tote canvases, easels, and brushes overseas, so she began to scavenge trash bins for materials: plaster, wood, plastic bags. She made things that were intentionally “ugly.” She let go of accurate representation.
Her work began to include playful, imaginative elements, juxtapositions of text and image, squiggles of color, rough surfaces, a kind of cheeky humor. “I felt a lightheartedness,” she says. “For the first time, I was using my imagination and pushing myself creatively. I had the confidence to explore abstraction.”
Fraleigh describes her former student’s work—including a painting recently acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp and another that hangs in the Centre Pompidou in Paris—as “grounded in various visual languages ... it’s an investigation of this kind of contemporary, internet swirl” that pulls in cartoon-like elements, advertising tropes (such as the Morton salt-shaker girl with the umbrella), and scraps of remembered or overheard text.
Langa keeps journals and sketchbooks of those tidbits—“things I’ve heard or collected, this kind of memory bank, things you know culturally.” One piece, painted on what looks like a rumpled patch of blue sky, includes multicolored arrows connecting brief phrases: “wake up and scream ... trouble remembering ... do you die?” Sentence fragments or words often occur in a gyre of color winding toward the center or radiating outward. Outsized, googly eyes are a frequent motif. Her materials include linen, oils, acrylic, metal, lacquer, plaster, and wood.
Langa used to think she needed to convey a single, consistent message—an “oeuvre”—in her paintings. Now, she says, she rejects the idea of being “boxed in” by a single identity, technique, or theme. The through lines in Langa’s work are freedom, playfulness, energy, and experimentation. “I try not to think about how people will interpret things. No two people will look at it the same way,” she explains.
Over time—the liberating stretch of graduate school; a two-year postgraduate residency at the HISK Higher Institute for Fine Arts in Ghent, Belgium; the grants that followed; her home now in the Netherlands, a country that generously supports artists with funding and resources—she’s come to embrace the idea that her art, like her life, is a kind of multiverse.
The through lines in Langa’s work are freedom, playfulness, energy, and experimentation.
“I often tell my mom, ‘We don’t really have a home.’ My sense of identity isn’t so much tied to a place; it’s informed by all these contrasting, sometimes contradictory, experiences. My life has helped me have a kind of freedom in my work.”
Now Langa’s had solo shows in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. She’s been honored through awards and grants including a 2021 Collectors of Contemporary Art (CoCA) Award for promising artists in the Netherlands and the Mondriaan Fund Stipendium for Emerging Artists. She earns her living as a creator of art. Her paintings hang in the sorts of places she once visited as a young person—museums that still hold scant work by women and people of color.
“It’s a big deal that as a Black woman I’m represented in these collections,” Langa says. “It’s really cool that maybe one day, someone who looks like me will see my work and think, ‘Maybe I could do that.’ For me, that’s a really important part of the story.”
Anndee Hochman is a journalist, essayist, and storyteller. Her column, “The Parent Trap,” appears weekly in the Philadelphia Inquirer.