Artists We Love: Zandile Tshabalala

WORDS Palesa Kgasane IMAGES courtesy of Zandile Tshabalala

Soweto-born fine artist Zandile Tshabalala has captured our attention with her striking work, which pays homage to the representation of Black women in art.

Though she may be young, born in 1999, and recently graduating with a Bachelor in Fine Art, Zandile is an artist with a voice that commands attention, of the good kind. When encountering Zandile’s paintings,  it does not take too much consideration to realise why it holds space in today’s world. At a time when artists of colour and Black artists are redefining what it means to have a seat at the table, Zandile’s boldness in deconstructing notions of desirability, womanhood and blackness allows her to occupy space in a beautiful and complex way. Through the medium of oil on canvas, the subjects in her paintings come alive, facing the onlooker and reimagining the gaze.

VISI spoke to Zandile to learn more about the person behind the artworks and the meaning behind what she creates.

Where did your journey into becoming an artist begin?

I’d say my journey has been an ongoing one, since the beginning of my third year at varsity (2019). This period was when I had made the decision to invest a bit more into my artistic practice. I had gone through a few trial and errors in my paintings. I only came closer to finding myself towards the end of the year when I had decided to stop trying too hard and instead paint what and how I truly wanted to. I used all my gathered research and references from other artists I looked up to as guidance to finding my own voice and path.

Tell us about why you chose painting as your preferred medium.

Painting has been my favourite medium since back in my visual arts days in high school. I had learned about some of the most prestigious painters (nationally and internationally) at school for the first time. That had an impact on me, as for me, this was all new knowledge. It lead to the growth of my curiosity about the medium itself and an even bigger desire to chase this dream of being a painter, which at the time seemed very far-fetched. This career path was not a very normal or well-known one in the community that I had been raised in back home in Soweto.

zandile tshabalala

Your paintings are very distinct in style, reminiscent of the work of Kerry James Marshall. Is he an artist that inspired you?

I consider myself a student of Kerry James Marshall, whom I have witnessed paint blackness in its literal colour: black. For me it is the directness of this usage of black paint to represent blackness that I found striking and have continuously used in my own works. I’d like to think of my paintings as an ongoing and evolving narration. They give off some of my thoughts, gathered knowledge, desires, and my perspective on the representation of women and the journey of a woman of colour, navigating and finding herself within the art space.

Your subjects are often Black women. Can you describe the intention behind this?

I’m interested in different views and meaning on what it is to be a Black woman and I am offering my own. There are different representations of Black women in the world. There are ones, which I strive to diverge from, which are those that reinforce or lead to the ideas of Black women being inferior and not capable of possessing beauty, intelligence, power and ownership of their own bodies. The aim of my work is to depict confident women who are invested in the self, whether it be through introspection or care, and are also free to be sensual, bold beings. It is my perspective of what beauty is to me and it so happens that beauty to me is women and blackness.

What is your conceptual process when starting a new piece?

I’d like to think of myself as a reflective being. I often go back to some of the pieces I have previously created or some of the research and knowledge I have gathered and use this as a new but seemingly continuous start for upcoming works. The process involves the typical routine of sketching on stretched canvas, then painting, but I do this in a way that has become familiar to me. I don’t like relying heavily on the reference image, so I often use it to get the outlines that I need, then let the remainder of the work be one lead by intuition. I like order, so there is a lot of intentional control over the works in terms of colour and background, even in the free flow.

Can you tell us about the recent exhibitions you have been part of recently?

Recently, in the month of November, I had my studio opening where I exhibited some new pieces. I am also exhibiting at the African Artist Foundation in Lagos, Nigeria, alongside some amazing contemporary African artists. I have an upcoming show in January – that is all I can hint at for now.

What is the most fundamental thing you have learned thus far about being a woman artist?

I have learned that there is plenty of space for women in the arts. I think it is the platform and recognition that is still lacking. I have also learned that it is not my gender that validates me as an artist. If it is, it should not be.

Follow Zandile on Instagram to keep up to date with her work.