A disciple of Mandela, Jabu brings an activist mindset to contemporary portraiture

By Andy Vasoyan

Jabu counts Nelson Mandela and Jay-Z among his heroes and has painted their likenesses in a series of portraits

Despite innumerable New York Times and New Yorker think pieces to the contrary, Los Angeles is home to a vibrant arts scene that attracts and inspires creative transplants from across the globe. One of the more interesting among them is South African-born painter, sculptor and civil rights activist Jabu, who works under his mononym from a Westside studio.

Jabu was born in apartheid-era Johannesburg; as a youth he spent a year in prison and 30 days in solitary confinement for making T-shirts depicting Nelson Mandela, then a political prisoner. After Mandela’s rise to the presidency, the African National Congress recruited Jabu into its youth league and sent him to the U.S. to study peaceful conflict resolution. Years later he returned to America and settled in Marina del Rey. Ever the artistic nomad, he’s hunting for a new studio while working out of Santa Monica.

After dealing with political struggles most of his life, Jabu declines to share his given name in order to distance himself from any baggage associated with it; instead he’s taken to calling himself an “artivist” — both a title and an idea that show through in his work.

“Creating art for art’s sake is not enough for me,” he says. “I believe it’s my calling to create works that are meaningful for different causes.”

Among those causes is preserving Mandela’s legacy, which informs his approach to other subjects: “I take on some of his teachings, and he spoke for the voiceless. For me, the voiceless today is wildlife.”

Jabu has painted elephants, lions, rhinos and other threatened fauna of his native continent in vivid primary colors for charitable causes, doing his part toward “saving these majestic creatures so that our future generations can see them and enjoy them in their environments,” he says.

His portraiture work focuses on the people he finds inspiring. He’s painted a whole series of Mandela, plus portraits of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jay-Z and The Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am. He’s currently at work on a portrait of Deepak Chopra.

Jabu’s contemporary aesthetic is reflection in his technique: He mixes his paints in wine glasses, uses foraged feathers as paintbrushes, and is working on ways to incorporate virtual reality into his work.

“The process is liberating,” he says. “I want to show artists that you don’t have to follow in the footsteps of previous masters who have done it all. … You can find your own creative way to create works of art that you love.”

Not apart from but a part of the Silicon Beach scene, Jabu is working on a business to facilitate cryptocurrency for art-related transactions. He was recently featured in a video for Pixels, a Santa Monica-based online marketplace for those looking to buy and sell original and print versions of works of art, where some of his work is also for sale.

“As a black artist, I realize that there are galleries and museums that are set in their own ways of how they represent artists,” he says. “Instead of relying on galleries I do pop-up art shows, I work from my own studio. This gives me more freedom to be in charge of my craft.”

Without the tethers of the traditional gallery system holding him down, Jabu could theoretically be working in any city in the world, even his hometown of Johannesburg, but he’s chosen to stay on the Westside for the time being.

“I’ve done exhibitions in different cities, including NYC and Chicago,” he says, “I notice that the mecca of art, this is where it’s at — this is where artists want to be.”

Visit artistjabu.com to contact Jabu or view his portfolio.