Zandile Tshabalala has caught the attention of art critics and collectors across the world with her signature paintings and prints that redefine representation of black bodies combined with glamorous animal patterns. Individuality as the muse for great art, the Johannesburg artist’s works immediately catch the eye for their stunning visual appeal and captivating use colours and patterns, while focusing on the narrative of the black woman’s strength and vulnerability.
The young artist has said: “I want narratives of us to be carried forward and internalized, and thus I have chosen to re-represent the black woman in a more confident, sensual, beautiful manner touching a bit on the importance of being able to dream, to be, celebrate, and embrace the self as is, unapologetically so.”
We spoke to Tshabalala about the inspiration behind her pieces and her philosophies when it comes to creating art.
How did you become interested in art and decide to pursue it professionally?
I have always done art since my paper doll days back in primary to be quite honest. Not much thought was put into it, I just so happened to draw well and enjoyed doing it for entertainment. It is in high school where I was first introduced to the term “Fine art” and art as a career path and developed an interest in pursuing it. My family was not open to the idea due to lack of information about the arts and at the time we all did not know anyone living off of it but I still went on to pursue it nonetheless.
What artists are you inspired by, either their message or pieces?
In terms of detail and materiality I am mostly drawn to Njideka Akunyili-Crosby and Cinga Samson’s works, when it comes to the attitude of the work and narrative I am very fond of Mickalene Thomas and Kerry James Marshall’s works. Lastly I enjoy Henri Rousseau’s works for its dreaminess and imaginative quality, I resonate with that a lot as I am someone who is still very much in touch with their imagination and love dreaming.
You’ve spoken about immortalising the experiences and perspectives of Black women in your pieces. Is this something you knew you wanted to do when you started painting?
I believe I had an idea of what I wished to speak about in my works for the longest time but struggled to articulate and depict it on surface. I went through some trial and error in my work and some drastic changes in the manner in which I worked. It is most recent when I had decided to stop trying too hard and paint in a manner that aligns with me and also which I gravitated towards the most which is figurative and self-portraiture. The first painting I did mid-last year “Thinking bout’ you” was more of an affirmation piece for me, I felt I needed something to refer back to as a reminder of my own strength and confidence. Stepping away from the completed painting made me realized that there was a need for more of such images which spoke of and represented the black woman in a different light other than the past narrative of inferiority.
Do you have any advice for young artists in finding their voice and aesthetic in their work?
From personal experience, sometimes the magic happens when you stop overthinking and trying. I think one should listen to oneself and perhaps start there. Our individuality and experiences can lead to something more special and genuine.
What are some of your favourite pieces that you’ve created recently?
From my portrait series Portrait III and Portrait IIII, and also Within Silence I. With the portraits I do enjoy their simplicity but also how they simultaneously maintain confidence and boldness which are traits I like my work to have. With Within Silence I there is a softness that starts to be present, seen here is a woman enjoying her own space, company and is in a state of relaxation. I do enjoy witnessing and capturing those moments of rest as well in my works. For me they are a protest against the stereotypes and narratives of the ‘strong black woman’. We are strong yes but we are women and humans too, gentle and sometimes weary. And we do deserve to have many of these moments for ourselves.
From where are you inspired to use animal print and other patterns as recurring themes in your work?
Animal prints for me are strikingly beautiful and attention grabbing which is what drew me to featuring them in my works initially. I think they complement the boldness of my figures quite well and evoke questions of the association/relation of women and some of these animals or patterns.
Many of your Instagram captions begin with “Dear Gratitude.” What does gratitude mean to you and why is it important to you and your art career?
Gratitude for me is important to keep me grounded through it all and also this is me acknowledging how each achievement contributes to my current and next success. Although my work ethic contributes to my progress, the support I continue to receive is also as crucial for me and thus I give thanks.