INTERVIEWED BY Michaela Stehr IMAGES @muhahalicia on Instagram
Joburg-based pun extraordinaire and illustrator Alicia van Zyl gives us the lowdown on what makes her tick, the female form as inspiration and life before the pandemic.
Tell us a bit about yourself
My name is Alicia van Zyl, I’m an illustrator currently living in Johannesburg. I’m also known as Muhahalicia (pronounced moo-ha-ha-licia) – it’s a classic Disney villain laugh that morphs into my name, which is appropriate because I cackle like a sea witch and that also happens to be the response I want people to have when they look at my work.
I’m a sucker for a pun so I love making visual puns that inspire delightful cackles and eye-rolls alike.
I wasn’t always a full-time illustrator though. I started my career 13 years ago in the advertising industry, which I loved for a solid decade, but as time went on I found myself incorporating illustration into my work more and more. Finally, in 2019, I impulsively applied for a design program in New York City. I got accepted, quit my job, gave up my apartment and spent an incredible 6 months discovering my voice as an illustrator while falling in love with the city and its many rats.
As angry as I am at the pandemic for keeping me from the city I adore, the last year and a half has been so good for my career. Working 16 hours a day with no distractions really can really grow a baby freelance career very quickly.
You do a versatile mix of typography, illustration and comic style imagery. Do you have a favourite?
Oh, I love them all! For me, the message and the concept is the most important part of art, so I like to use whatever works best for that, but I am focusing more on illustration at the moment.
Figuring out what kinda puns can and can’t work in a visual medium is so much fun. It also allows people to hang around inside pieces and discover the little lols hidden everywhere. Sometimes, when I point some of the more obscure ones out to people, their faces brighten up and they’ll loudly and excitedly say something like “I DIDN’T EVEN REALIZE THAT’S SO CLEVER OMG HAHAHA”. That then encourages them to look for more and maybe make up their own.
Secretly, I also love it when people respond with eye-rolls to my terrible jokes. It gives me life!
What inspires your work?
I love puns, innuendos, wordplay, anything silly like that, really.
The curves of the female form are also a great inspiration and I just love creating work that shows women having fun, being powerful, acting silly and causing a raucous.
We don’t always have to be depicted as weak, cookie-cutter people that are well-behaved.
What inspires your pieces?
This might be a cliche, but… life. Life inspires it all. Laughing at life, to be more accurate.
The series I’m working on at the moment is inspired by the 4 major South African cities that shaped me as a human and they’re all jam-packed with stories and puns.
When I draw a comic, it’s usually an exaggeration of something funny that happened to me. It’s kinda cool to capture those memories in a way that’s not a photo or a video.
Sometimes, my pieces are a result of practical problems I’m experiencing. The ‘Lekker Slang’ series is a good example of that. I was made an official GIPHY artist which meant I had the power to create Instagram stickers. This was just when stories became a thing and I wasn’t really using them yet, so I had no idea what to do with this power until I started posting stories and realizing there are no rad stickers for the literal truckloads of slang terms we as South Africans have. So I started making them! They’re still on there, if you search ‘Lekker Slang’ you’ll see ‘em. I’m considering doing a second part because it’s quite old now and there are so many new terms, but I haven’t had a chance to start it yet.
What do you enjoy in a brief?
Honestly, boundaries are good. A brief should pose a problem and I want to solve it in the best way possible. But then, get outta my way because I know what I’m doing hahaha.
I don’t think clients always realise this, but you’ll get your best work (read ROI) out of creatives when you trust them to do what they do. You’ve hired them because you like what they do, right? So just let them.
Do you have any illustrators in SA you admire?
Oh wow so many, we’re such a talented bunch!
Some of these are artists more than illustrators, but that line can blur very easily so here goes:
Keya Tama is South African but currently living in the States. He does mainly mural work, but he also does exhibitions and some textile design. I love his work so much that I got him to design a half sleeve tattoo for me. It’s sitting proudly on my left arm.
I’m lucky to call Megan Bird one of my close friends. This powerhouse creates amazingly detailed illustrations inspired by the animals and plants of our world. All while raising two creatures of her own.
Nanna Venter is such a badass that she has her DOCTORATE in the arts. I have several of her pieces on my wall and have commissioned her to make pieces of me and my friends a couple of times. I even wear one of her pendants around my neck 24/7.
Terence Maluleke affectionately known as Tako is an amazing illustrator that’s recently started exploring fine arts more and it’s so good. Really, do yourself a favour.
Malcolm Mwope is literally changing the face of animation. This guy is killiiiing iiiiiit.
What does a regular day look like for you?
Please hold on while I try to remember life before the pandemic, because I’m sure no one wants to hear about me drawing in gowns and slippers for 3 days in a row.
I’m a night person that absolutely hates routines, so I don’t have any of those. The great thing about my work is that I can do it anywhere and it’s usually even better when I have the inspiration of new places and faces, so [when there isn’t a stupid pandemic] I like travelling and going on adventures. Road trips are my favourite.
I once sketched out the entire contact sheet for a children’s book next to a river in the Freestate with nothing but a fire to keep me warm and provide light. I then did some of the final illustrations while lounging in the sun at the Kruger National Park watching the animals graze through our camp.
Every day is different, but I draw (aka work – lol what is my life) for at least 8 hours a day. Sometimes I wake up and I’m immediately productive but other times I wake up and decide to relax first, enjoy the beautiful day and then work later. I used to work every weekend too (and will still sometimes do that if the deadline calls for it), but I now try to take those off to recharge. I’ve realized that art is a tank that can be drained and you need to fill that tank back up again. I do that with travelling, meeting new people, finding new bands/musicians, hanging out with old friends, playing with everyone’s pets and making silly jokes, of course.
What are your plans for the next few years?
Barring any more pandemic setbacks, I plan to move to New York for at least 3 years. But like I said, I love road trips, so I’m planning on buying an RV and exploring the rest of the country when things get a bit too cold for my sun-loving South African blood in NYC.
Before I leave though, I’m launching an online store where people can buy limited edition prints, stationery and whatever else I decide to make.
I’m currently collaborating with a fashion designer on a capsule collection and a jewellery designer for a range of accessories to go with it. I’m very excited about this!
I was also supposed to start my tattoo apprenticeship this year, but the pandemic has made that a bit difficult, hopefully, I can start that soon.
Where can people get in touch with you about work?
The most reliable way is probably email. Mine is firstname.lastname@example.org.