Glen Ridge is a small, quiet suburb in the center of the vibrant Soweto township, south of Johannesburg. Here, Isaac Mojalefa Sentso stays alone in a four-room home that doubles as his art studio. This late morning FORBES AFRICA found him perched on a leather sofa facing a makeshift easel made of a piece of wood supported by an ironing board. A picture of the beaming United States’ President Donald Trump appears on his laptop next to him. He wakes up every day at 3AM and works throughout the day.
“I don’t do art after sunset because I use natural light,” says Sentso, as he welcomes us into his home with an open heart.
Soon, after briefly exchanging banter, Sentso recounts with glee the morning he met Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe in 2015. After spending two weeks drawing the portrait of Mugabe, he took a taxi to the Zimbabwean Embassy in Pretoria, with the wrapped picture tucked under his arm. A week later he secured an appointment with the president.
“I was there at 7:35AM because I like being early all the time. The ambassador ushered me into the room where he was having his tea. Mugabe asked me how long the picture took me ‘because I can see there’s no charcoal’. The way he understands art amazed me. … ‘I know art I was at Fort Hare and I am a collector’, he said. He asked me how much I wanted for the picture, I said R25,000 ($1,900). He scolded me for being cheap, he said it’s worth far more than that. Mugabe taught me a lesson about valuing and pricing my work,” recalls the unassuming Sentso.
Later, Sentso joined the president’s blue-light entourage visiting the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto – a tribute to casualties of the 1976 students’ uprising. At a gathering that included South Africa’s Minister of Arts Nathi Mthethwa and Mugabe’s entourage, Sentso was asked to present his picture to Mugabe there and then.
“The very same evening R35,000 was deposited into my bank account,” he says.
But why did Sentso do a portrait of a man viewed as a villain around the world?
“I knew Mugabe appreciated arts. When I looked at all the pictures on Mugabe on internet, I saw they were insulting to him. I worked on a picture that will make him look beautiful and young. I don’t want controversy in my life, I only focus on positivity. I don’t want to be caught in politics,” he says.
Sentso says his target customers are the rich; businesspeople, monarchs, billionaires and heads of state. Most of his work isn’t commissioned; he sends the portraits to the subjects hoping they will send money in return. But, even though most of them are wealthy, some of those he sends his pictures to don’t give a cent. Those among his fruitless endeavours are: Carlos Slim Helú, one of the richest men in the world; Alisher Usmanov, the Russian business magnate; and Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei. Sentso delivered his portrait to Mexican tycoon Slim through the South African embassy. At the time, South Africa’s Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was due to visit Slim and the packaged portrait was to be delivered by him, but Sentso said it was the last he heard of his work.
Sentso normally sells his portraits for over R100,000 ($7,360), but if you have a good rapport with him, the price may go down to R50,000 ($3,800). When we met him, he was at wit’s end because he had hoped to sell a portrait to South African billionaire Patrice Motsepe. In late 2015, Sentso hand-delivered a picture to the Mamelodi Sundowns Football Club offices in Pretoria, a club that Motsepe owns.
It seems that the portrait was lost before it could reach Motsepe and Sentso had not been able to reach out to the businessman. But just before we went to press, Sentso was hoping the frustrating story of the lost portrait would have a happy ending after he met Sandile Langa, the Legal Compliance and Stakeholder Relations Executive at Motsepe’s African Rainbow Minerals. On hearing about Sentso from FORBES AFRICA, Langa contacted him to find an amicable solution to what seemed to be a mishap.
Even though he struggles to sell his work and earn a living, Sentso refuses to put his work in galleries as he thinks they are cheating artists.
Trouble has followed Sentso, and his drawings, since day one.
“My older brother would bring home his homework to draw something. I would attempt to draw the same thing he was drawing and my pictures were far better than his… In those days I was happy to draw in school books and he was happy to take advantage of me,” he says.
Two years later, Sentso enrolled at the same school as his brother. His brother’s secret of asking Sentso to do his homework was exposed by the same teacher who taught them both.
“The teacher said ‘no, it cannot be it’. She called him in class and instructed us to draw while she was watching. My embarrassed brother had to confess that I had been doing his homework for him,” he recalls.
Growing up in the townships of Johannesburg under apartheid, it never dawned on Sentso that he can go to art school and make a living. So, like many black people in his community, he took a job as a clerk in an insurance company after leaving school.
“When I got bored I would draw at work. But I later destroyed those pages. It wasn’t a serious thing,” he says.
It took him 25 years to take his talent seriously. He enrolled for a part-time arts course at the University of the Witwatersrand, but that only lasted a few weeks. Sentso realized that wasn’t going to work for him and registered at the Johannesburg Art Foundation.
“They liked my style of art at the Johannesburg Art Foundation. I decided to quit my job and study full-time. But when I was in that class I was very slow to finish my work because I was too much of a perfectionist. The course facilitator suggested I change to graphic design. To my surprise, I liked this graphic design and designing on a computer was fun. The title itself, graphic design, was appealing,” says Sentso.
In 1992, between chopping and changing courses, Sentso obtained a certificate and went to work as a graphic designer. He worked from home and reported to an editor. It was a team of two.
After two years of working from home as a lonely designer, Sentso needed a fresh challenge and joined advertising agency FCB South Africa, where he worked as multimedia designer and video editor for 12 years.
“When 9/11 happened in the US, I was assigned to Nigeria to train those guys in animation and video editing and all that. I was the only black multimedia designer in the company,” he says.
By 2004, Sentso had saved enough money to start on his own. In 2012, a break-in in his new home in Soweto saw him lose everything he had.
“I was distraught but I needed to earn a living. I didn’t start my life with computers. God gave me talent, not computers. I had already started visiting the so-called top galleries around Johannesburg. It is from that point I said to myself ‘there’s no work of my mine that is going to be sold there’,” he says.
In 2014, Sentso realized he did not need a job from anyone, he was going to make a living on his drawings. So, he started drawing influential people and couriered his pictures to them. But he has not always been lucky as some have tried to swindle him.
As Sentso was busy with the portrait of President Trump when we visited him, he can only hope he won’t suffer the same fate.