Early on a school day in 2014, a retired police cruiser pulled up to the loading dock at Dorman High School.
Tied to the top of the Crown Victoria were a pair of giant canvases, paintings in progress for Ludovic Nkoth, who was trying, somewhat stealthily, to bring them to school for his senior AP art class.
His teacher, Robert Urban, was watching, amused.
“(He) saw me arriving at 7 a.m., 8 a.m. with two canvases tied to the car, and he was like, ‘What are you doing!? ‘” Nkoth recalls, laughing at the memory. “It’s a huge car, but the canvas can’t fit anywhere in the car or in the trunk.”
Fast forward to spring 2022: Nkoth flies to London, Paris and a few cities in Italy for gallery openings and appearances, his finished canvases carefully packaged and protected for the journey across the Atlantic.
Nkoth is considered a rising star in the world of contemporary art, represented by galleries in Turin, Italy, London and Los Angeles.
His colorful, often oversized works are in demand in the United States, Europe and Asia. They evoke the course of his life, across continents and cultures.
Ludovic Nkoth’s trip to the United States
Ludovic Nkoth was born in 1994 in Cameroon in West Africa and moved to Spartanburg when he was 13 years old.
His first language was French, and he spent his freshman year in South Carolina learning enough English to go to college. Drawing was her way of interpreting her new home and staying connected to Cameroon. Hip-hop was his soundtrack and helped him master his new language. Even now he speaks with a somewhat lyrical inflection.
At Dorman, he played college football and studied music and art. He graduated in 2014 but stayed in Spartanburg to pursue a degree in interdisciplinary studies at USC-Upstate.
The university does not offer an art degree program, so Nkoth created his own degree program. He took courses in graphic design, art history, and art education, while painting and creating at his co-op studio West Main in downtown Spartanburg.
He first moved there when he was still in high school.
“I needed space to work. The projects I wanted to do started to get bolder and bolder.
His time in the studio counted as credit at USC-Upstate that he needed to qualify for graduate programs.
“I knew I wanted a career in the arts, so I started putting everything I could learn into forming a program or degree for myself. I created my own program off campus,” he joked that he gave himself top marks for his independent studies. “My GPA was amazing! I didn’t really have to answer to anyone.
After USC-Upstate, he moved to New York in 2018 and completed an MFA at Hunter College in 2021. Although he now travels extensively, the city is his home base and an important source of creative energy.
“I love the chaos that comes with New York and this pace of life,” he said. “It reminds me a bit of home (in Cameroon) too, because we are always moving – the markets are very similar – like when I walk around Chinatown.”
From Spartanburg to international fame
Now that he’s fully immersed in the art world, both in New York and internationally, he says he realizes the benefits and limitations of his upstate experience.
“I felt like I always had so many different perspectives. I could code-switch a little easier than most,” he said. “Existing in another world where I had to be so social as possible at school because of sport and living with people who did nothing but sport.”
He says that not just being surrounded by art and artists “helped me to function very differently. I am very happy to have had this experience. »
One of his works, “Oasis”, is on display at the High Museum in Atlanta. It was the first major art museum Nkoth had ever visited – along with Urban and his AP art class.
“Going from high school experience to museum experience as a wall-hanging artist is just breathtaking and such a warm feeling for me because I’ve connected so much to the High Museum,” a- he declared.
“As soon as I walked through the doors, I had this weird feeling. You know, sometimes you walk into a space where you feel like you belong, or you feel like you have a connection to the space .
Urban said having a former student’s work hanging in a top art museum like the High is “like a coach asking one of his athletes to go to the Olympics or to be enrolled in the pros”.
Student and teacher have stayed in touch, but sometimes important details are forgotten.
“In the fall, Ludovic texted me and was like, ‘Hey, I’m at the High Museum.’ I said, ‘Great! I’m glad you went back there,” Urban said with a laugh. Nkoth never mentioned that the reason he was at the museum was because he was buying his works.
Urban learned the news when Nkoth was featured in the USC-Upstate alumni magazine.
“I texted him and said, ‘Dude, you never told me THAT’S why you were there!'”
Recognize Nkoth’s talent in Dorman
Urban says that even in high school, it was clear that Nkoth was an extraordinary talent.
“He had a certain confidence in him, that ‘Hey, I can do it.’ When you see the portfolio of work he did in high school, it’s like, ‘What? He’s a high school kid?’ »
As the final project for Urban’s AP class, Nkoth made a collection that featured characters in action in sports.
“It was a big part of his world back then,” Urban said.
The dozen works, most in Nkoth’s oversized format and painted in bold acrylics, evoke the work of famed sports painter LeRoy Neiman, an artist Nkoth says he admires and studied.
One, “Game Day,” is 20 square feet of kinetic football action mostly in Dorman Cavalier blue – “just because Dorman is playing today!” he tweeted at the time.
Nkoth’s ties to Dorman remain strong. Her brothers Serge and Sydney are both high school students.
“Serge is a senior at the moment and he plays football at Dorman, and I think he has an offer to go play at Converse,” says Ludovic, the proud brother. “Sydney is a sophomore and he also plays football.”
Would they want to be named in history? “No. They’ll love the scream.
Make art a full body and volume experience
For Ludovic Nkoth, a day of work in the studio is a bodily and multisensory experience.
A glass of red wine, a fire that roars when it’s cold, several paintings in progress at the same time. Often working his huge canvases on the ground.
But first comes the music. “As loud as my speaker will go,” he said.
From his musical childhood in Cameroon to his exposure to hip-hop as a teenager in Spartanburg, his musical tastes are as wide-ranging as his artistic style.
“Lately I’ve been listening to more jazz and old funk, from parts of West Africa, and a lot of old jazz from here in the States,” he says. “Miles Davis, Gil Scott-Heron, Fela Kuti from Nigeria.”
As a teenager in Spartanburg, a newcomer to the United States, hip-hop helped him learn English.
Now he sometimes listens to music from Cameroon, which is mostly in French – his first language and the main language of the country.
“Music is something that I had already engraved in my brain. In Cameroon, we learned a lot through music. We sing a lot, oral tradition. So music was something that I instinctively identified with from that I came to this country.
This story will appear in the Summer 2022 edition of Spartanburg Magazine.