@karabo_poppy shot by @uglybruv

There’s a TED Talk where someone mentions that distractions are necessary for the brain’s creativity. I am going to have to look into this assertion as I have evidence that one of our best illustrators and visual artists, doesn’t tolerate distractions and rather keeps producing quality creative work consistently. 

28-year-old Karabo Poppy Moletsane has achieved the kind of success that very few people would predict for creatives and in our interview, she speaks about how she worked hard for at least five years before bagging her first big gig. She is a living example of the saying ‘hard work pays off’ – and it literally has for her. 

Here’s our conversation about how she illustrated her way to the top…

Q. You grew up in Vereeniging, and you didn’t have any visual artist to look up to in the area who successfully turned their art into a career. Did this influence your work ethic to prove that you could actually be the best?

It didn’t necessarily improve my work ethic, because that was the career that I already wanted to work towards. It did influence the responsibility that I do have, so even though I wanted to work as hard as I could for myself and see how far I could push it, there is the responsibility that this isn’t just for me but also for the future generations and other people that look like me and come from similar backgrounds to know that they can also do it. 

Q. In your view, what needs to be done in schools and communities in order to encourage more children to have a variety of career choices that include being visual artists?

I think the start of that is actually at home, and in general conversations in communities. I think when I was growing up, a “creative career” wasn’t something that was looked at favourably, it wasn’t as highly regarded as being a doctor or a lawyer.

The conversation should start with utilizing career choices (not seeing one career choice as better than the other) even though I have the understanding that our parents thought that way in the past because that was all that they knew and the examples that they were seeing. So, I think the conversation can start with respecting careers equally. 

However, schools should offer arts, dramatic arts and design as well as Maths and Science. Having them coexist in the school education system is a good place to start.

Q. When you decided to pursue a career in arts, your family did not greet this with excitement; surely now they have changed their standpoint?

Yeah, I don’t think that many people’s families, specifically black families, get excited when their child is pursuing something in a kind of industry that can be seen as risky. It’s also not a cheap subject to study, materials are really expensive, usually you have to have a good base or support from home to get a good artistic education. 

So no, my parents were not excited, but they said as long as they don’t have to pay for anything I can go into it, so I worked really hard and got scholarships so that I can actually study that. Now they are able to see something that they have never seen before, and they are actually like the biggest activists for me and other kids who want to pursue arts.     


Q. You have previously mentioned that the first place you saw black beauty represented was in a salon. This really says a lot about unequal representation of beauty if you had to actually step out of your house to find inspiration. 

Are you proud of the current representation of black women and queer women in media right now?1

I think throughout the years things have been changing. The inequality in representation is changing and starting to balance out.  However, we are in the early stages of rectifying the past representation, so I am really proud of the steps that we making but I do think that there is a long way to go. There’s still more voices we need to hear, more people we haven’t seen and also more bodies and people we have yet to celebrate. 

Q. Besides the local salon in Johannesburg that inspires you, what else do you draw inspiration from? And also, who do you look up to?

I pretty much draw inspiration from everyday life in South Africa, starting from everyday life in Vereeniging then Johannesburg and eventually South Africa. I’ve recently branched into everyday life in Africa and having an African experience that’s a little bit more broader and what really inspires me, specifically, not looking at what most people would see or call  “trendy Africa.”  I think we see a lot of that in the media, but I still want to celebrate everyday life in our continent.  For example something like a normal commute, our aesthetic is most beautiful when it’s at its most raw, and simple, and it’s something that’s not thought of, like an extension of SA.                                     

That’s what I choose to focus my art on, it’s not often you see the everyday person on a piece of art and that’s something I’m really passionate about doing.   

Q. There is definitely a difference between having a 9 – 5 and being a creative artist, right? How do you ensure that you hold yourself responsible and get the work done?

That’s quite a tricky one, because I’ve pretty much worked from home my whole career so a lot of it is practice because it’s not something that I was taught, being the first business owner in my family.

I think the main thing was, knowing I have no other option other than to make it work because I had nothing to fall back on. So, what kept me focused and responsible when it came to sitting down and getting the work done, like working 18 hours a day and 3 hours a day on weekends as well because I didn’t have any other option my only option, was to make it work (sic).

Q. Being an impactful artist means you have to be in control of your work, and the more you become impactful, the more you’ll need people who understand your vision to carry it forward. Do you have a team that helps you carry your vision forward?

I haven’t thought of it like that, I don’t have a team that currently helps me carry my vision forward. I think I have a pretty strong vision and a vision that a lot of people have, so it kind of becomes like the broader community becomes my team, so I know that there are other creatives working towards the same goal and that feels like we officially, unofficially a team together.

When I started I got a lot of help from my brothers, they would be the ones posing for my illustrations, they would be the ones to give me feedback on my illustrations, and  so I think the support I received from my brothers in the beginning actually made them my unofficial team. 

Q. On 13 May 2021, you made a call for visual artists to be mentored by yourself, and these artists will get to produce collaborative work with you. How is that project going?

I haven’t disclosed the project or project details yet, but I just needed 6 diverse creatives that would produce work with me, and pretty much the heart of that project kind of came in with the desire to give back. I get  quite a lot of emails and DMs from people asking how they can turn their art into a career that is similar to mine.

So all the things that I’ve learnt throughout the years is something that I want to give back, and it’s not something that can necessarily be done over Instagram live, it would just feel impersonal and I think the only way I can show people the ways that I worked towards getting my career is if I’m hands on with them.    

Q. Lebron James wore the Karabo Poppy Nike Air force 1’s, and you designed a portrait as an appreciation. When that collaboration was still in the pipeline, did you envision that one of the world’s greats would actually end up owning a pair?

I really didn’t in the beginning, but obviously it’s a desire that one would have. This was something that was completely new, Nike has never done it before and I think that there’s other extremely talented artists that Nike could have chosen. 

I’m honoured that they’ve chosen me, and let me tell my story and kind of let me break the rules around the Air Force 1’s, for example for one of my designs they let me cover the swoosh completely with a design, and you never know how people are going react to something like that. Finding people like Lebron James, Offset or Rhapsody wearing those sneakers felt like a stamp of approval from people who have really loved this brand, because they’ve been wearing Air Force 1’s since the start of their careers. 

Q. You have really lived our ancestor’s wildest dreams. What are the top 3 things that are still on your vision board right now?

Strangely enough I try not to have a vision board, threw that idea/process out years ago because I realized I dream too small. I feel like having a vision board is creating unintentional boundaries for where I think I can go. I think that with such a new industry or occupation, for me to use a vision board, there’s parts of my occupation that I can reach that I don’t even know yet. 

I still want to continue occupying spaces that I never thought someone like me could, so that more people like me can strive for success in this industry.         

Q. What can you say to the young people of South Africa? 

That’s a hard one. What I would say to the youth of South Africa, is not to be intimidated or discouraged by how long it actually takes to achieve your goal. Not many people know but I graduated in 2013 and it’s been an 8year journey, and I’ve only started seeing results in terms of collaborative products & projects in the past 3 years, so for a good 5 years it was a struggle.

So to tell someone that for the first 5 years you will make little to no money, you won’t be respected much and working up to 18 hours a day almost every single day for first before you really start to see significant pay, is quite intimidating for a future creative to hear.

All in all don’t be intimidated by how long it takes to actually reach the point that you imagined for your career, be consistent in your quality & work ethic, and don’t shy away from your own unique voice/personality.

This conversation was food to my soul! I meant what I said when I said she is truly living our ancestors dreams. Her advice to young people is unfiltered – exactly what creatives must acknowledge, that it takes years to make a good living out of the arts industry.

What did you take away from this conversation? Let us know in the comment section.