South African artist Karabo Poppy melds the power and creativity of basketball with her own roots in new downtown mural
On a warm fall afternoon, Karabo Poppy Moletsane stared at a building’s exterior wall, looking for familiarity in an unfamiliar place. Karabo is an artist from South Africa and was about to set out on her latest project: a mural for the Utah Jazz. The 26-year-old, however, had never been to Utah until that mid-October day. Only in the past few months had she really come to know much about the state’s beloved basketball team. But the artist had a vision as she stared at that wall, her blank canvas.
“When I approach a new piece, I always look at it in a way that celebrates hybridity,” Karabo explained. “I try to find the similarities within my background or my narrative and the narrative I’m entering into. I try to create something that feels like home for me, but also something that feels like home for the people in that area.”
Over the next two weeks, her hands and clothes becoming stained with paint, Karabo set out to make her vision a reality. The end result: a 20-by-78-foot mural that melds the artist’s South African roots with the passion and energy of the Utah Jazz.
One of the first people to get a peek at Karabo’s design for the mural was, in his own way, himself an artist.
“I wish I could paint, but I do my own art,” Ricky Rubio said. “I like to create, I like to build from nothing. A pass is good, but when you add some flash to that pass it feels good. It looks good to create and see people enjoy it.”
Karabo sat down and talked with Rubio and his Jazz teammates Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles and Derrick Favors at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus before finalizing her design and beginning to paint the mural. The artist found herself drawn to the power of a slam dunk and the creativity of dribbling a basketball. So she set out to capture the energy of the game, jazz music and Utah’s love for the team—all while staying true to her African aesthetic.
“No matter if it’s a South African or an American, I want them to see a piece of themselves in it,” she said.
Rubio and his teammates certainly saw each other in the work, even though the four characters of the mural—two of them dunking and two dribbling basketballs—do not represent specific players.
“That’s probably Donovan between the legs?” Rubio guessed, pointing to one of the figures. “And this one is Rudy dunking?”
“Could be,” Karabo replied.
She asked the players for their input on the design and each one mentioned their love for Utah’s mountains.
“I grew up on the beach,” Ingles said. “But Utah, looking over the city, getting those beautiful trees and the mountains and, as of yesterday, a bit of snow up at my house, that’s something I’ve never experienced. I love that about being here.”
“Last year, at the All-Star break, I went on a road trip to the south of Utah and the mountains are super pretty,” Rubio added. “Bryce Canyon. Zion National Park. It’s really, really cool.”
Karabo refined the design for the mural after her conversations. Her final concept showcased Utah’s natural beauty with nods to the franchise’s history, mixing mountains and musical notes, spring flowers and a saxophone.
It was an approach Gobert could appreciate.
“On the court, you use your creativity,” he said. “When you make art, you do that too. Everything is connected.”
Art and Africa
To fully understand the artwork that now graces the west-facing wall of Valter’s Osteria in downtown Salt Lake City, you need to try to understand the artist.
Karabo grew up in Vereeniging, South Africa, where her mother noticed a young girl’s love for art and nourished it by supplying her with pens and pencils and paper.
“She saw that it was something that really brought me a lot of joy,” Karabo said.
Growing up, Karabo was not exposed to many other artists, so she took inspiration where she could find it. Often, that meant from the people who painted ads and signs at the hair salons in her town.
“Hair is just really big in my family,” she said. “I grew up in a small mining town, so there wasn’t a lot of street art or graffiti. I didn’t know that world existed. So the only time I’d really seen an expression of art was going to the hair salons and seeing a new sign being painted and the hairstyles that were being offered.”
Karabo’s art, including her mural for the Jazz, always includes a comb as an homage to that early source of inspiration.
After high school, Karabo moved to Pretoria to study design at a university. There were only nine people of color in her classes there, she said, which further shaped her style.
“I wasn’t seeing a narrative I was familiar with, so I had to create my own,” Karabo said.
That independence carried on after college when she took her first internship with a graphic design agency in Johannesburg.
“I thought I was living my dream,” she said. “I spent two weeks there and I just couldn’t do it anymore. It felt like I was creating someone else’s idea and dream.”
So with no prospects, she quit and set out on her own. She freelanced. She made art for herself. She went to libraries to use the internet and posted her work online, anywhere she could showcase herself for free. One day she got an email from Apple and at first she thought it was spam. It turned out to be her first big break: an offer to work on Apple’s RED campaign, an effort to end AIDS worldwide.
“From there, everything kind of snowballed,” she said.
When she first decided to pursue art professionally, her parents were skeptical.
“People going into the creative industry from South Africa and certainly from my background, it wasn’t something that was celebrated,” she said. “There were tons of questions. It wasn’t something that people saw as respectable or something that would bring any money into the family.”
Now her portfolio includes work for Nike, Apple and Google.
“My parents are the biggest advocates for it now,” she said.
A Lasting Impression
Karabo started painting the mural in downtown Salt Lake City on October 21. She began by mapping an 8-by-5-foot grid on the wall. Next, she outlined the entire mural in charcoal that could be washed away later.
“It’s been a fun process creating the mural,” she said. “Something this colossal does come with some challenges. Working with scaling an image on my computer to almost 78 feet wide is pretty tricky.”
For nearly two weeks, she painted from morning until night, working alone with her paint and brushes and hydraulic lift. The figures and images appeared slowly but surely, from broad strokes to fine details, outlined in charcoal and solidified with layers of acrylic and latex paint to stand up to the elements.
The medium is a special one for Karabo.
“Whether people have internet or not,” she said, “I thought street art was the perfect way to make my art accessible to anyone.”
And throughout the process of painting, Karabo has found herself in conversations with dozens of people passing by.
“There have been quite a few people come through and ask about the process, ask about the mural,” she said. “There have been fellow muralists, a dancer, people from every walk of life asking where I’m from and how I get started on something like this.”
Just as those people learned something about Karabo, Karabo came to better understand Utah, its people and the basketball team that unites so many of them. She has attended a game at Vivint Smart Home Arena during her stay in Salt Lake.
“There’s a team chemistry that I really enjoy,” she said. “Everyone is in tune with each other.”
She came away impressed, too, with a place that was once unfamiliar.
“What I really appreciate about the city is this openness to the new,” she said. “I think my work and what I do is very different, so it’s great to get such a warm welcome. Just seeing that openness to something new has been impactful for me. It feels like there’s a culture to create here and everyone’s being invited to create, no matter the style, no matter the background.”
Karabo brushed the final strokes onto her canvas in the dark just after midnight on November 1, grateful for the chance to leave behind a piece of herself that she hopes will last for a long time to come.
“What I hope it brings to the city is showing them a part of South Africa that they couldn’t have seen before,” she said. “And I’m curious if the city sees a bit of themselves in it as well.”