In Conversation With Zandile Tshabalala
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In Conversation With Zandile Tshabalala

Zandile Tshabalala was born in Soweto, South Africa in 1999. She is a visual artist and is currently completing her BA(FINA) at the University of the Witwatersrand. The mediums she uses most are acrylic and oil paint. at times infuseing the two with some sculptural elements, and bringing it all together on the canvas. She tends to revisit and make reference to the works of painters who came before her, and interpret or rework the works in the way she sees fit for her narrative and relatable to her practice. To name a few artists, the works of Kerry James Marshall, Njideka Akunyili-Crosby, Cinga Samson, Nandipha Mntambo and Henri Rousseau have stood out the most in influencing the artist’s way of thinking and working through her paintings. In her work she is interested in topics of representation particularly the representation of the black women in historical paintings. We asked her some questions after last night's launch of our online charity exhibition Drawn Together.

UL Next week (on June 16th) South Africa will observe Youth Day: the annual public holiday which remembers the tragic deaths of those who died in the Soweto riots of 1976. You were born in Soweto 23 years later and grew up there; could you tell us about your understanding of the riots, how those events affected your family and your childhood, as well as your understanding of race and racial injustice?

ZT My understanding of the significance of the South African youth day, June 16 is that it dates back to June 16, 1976 a period of the Soweto uprising. What was initially meant to be a peaceful march by the youth of Soweto against an educational system of the time - Bantu education, which served to reinforce the apartheid, became a violent occurrence between the youth and the police. Many lives, including that of Hector Petersen, were taken during this period and it was all due to the youth disagreeing with a system that was meant to police them into accepting what was to continue being their norm even after school (apartheid), rather than free or serve them. During this period my mother had just been born. It is my grandmother who was part of the youth training under Bantu education which went on until 1980 (6 years after my mother was born). Thinking and referring back to these historical events, my understanding of race is the categorization and grouping of people according to their physical appearance and of racial injustice the lifting of one group at the expense of the other whether it be through constructed systems, institutions and other means of policing which leads to a further division of one group being more superior than the other.

Dreaming, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 122 x 91 cm

ZT The Soweto riots were instigated by high school children, do you think the force of youth - that has so often highlighted global injustices in the past - is still a relevant aspect of protest? How important is it that young people like yourself try to enact large-scale change?

ZT Yes I do believe that the youth has always been involved in addressing injustices and still are very much invested and passionate in change making. This is important not only for the generation of the youth that is attempting to make these changes but for the next generation also. Of course there is still quite a lot to be done but as a current youth I do believe that every attempt and engagement is not done in vain but is very much impactful no matter the magnitude of that impact, which is why I think that the fighting spirit of the youth should continue and be carried forward until the state of egalitarianism (equality) is reached.

UL What are your thoughts on recent developments within the Black Lives Matter movement? The events that lead to Black Lives Matter protests are always detestable, they inspire a kind of uncompromising horror. In the case of George Floyd, was your reaction to that event any different to similar instances in the past?

ZT Well firstly I wouldn’t say that the case of George Floyd has inspired an uncompromising horror rather it has inspired and evoked the need for change and yet again this state of equality that I have spoken of in my previous point. With regards to the black lives matter movement it has always been present and probably will still remain present and relevant in future. It is the case of George Floyd that has yet again brought global attention to the movement and the old rages and injustices back into the light (which are always present but never really addressed). My reaction to the movement and what the movement stands for is still the same, I stand in solidarity with it. Although the challenges faced by Africans in different parts of the world slightly differ with some needing more urgency than the other (in my own country gender based violence being on top of the list) it does not change the fact that black lives matter whether it be the lives of black queers, the lives of black women or the lives of black men.

Nude Study, 2020, Charcoal on brown paper, 15 x 20 cm (This work features in Drawn Together)

UL What role do you think art can play in combating racial injustice? And do you think that the art world as an institution is the same as many others in terms of the presence of systemic racism?

ZT I think that art and protest is one way of addressing and attempting to combat racial injustices, this can be done in a literal blatant manner where one makes works relating to these topics or in more subtle way, for instance: me existing as a young African woman who is very much present in the arts is a protest in itself, if we were to think about the history of art making with relation to race and gender. In terms of the second part of your question, systematic racism in art institutions has been previously brought up and addressed numerous times, it’s presence being said to be very much there, however I personally think that it would be more interesting to receive the perspective of an institution with regards to systematic racism within institutions.

UL Your work depicts bold black figures, typically female, who seem quite confrontational. They stare at the viewer with a steely confidence, surrounded by these majestic furs. It’s been said that you’re trying to reposition the role of the black female figure from a peripheral use in the art historical canon, to the unapologetic centre stage of contemporary painting - is this a fair assessment? 

ZT To a certain extent yes. I am very much interested in the centralization of the black woman in my works. I do want narratives of us being more than just servants and inferior (as it was previously depicted) to be carried forward and internalized and thus 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 and celebrate and embrace the self as is, unapologetically so.

UL Lastly, could you tell us about the wonderful Portrait I? All the key components of your work seem to be present, and it all comes together in a piece full of style, confidence and flair - we think it’s fantastic!

ZT The portrait Portrait I is a continuation of my thoughts around embracing ones blackness, beauty and womanhood unabashedly. It is also part of my own personal reflections on the works I have done previously and what has now sort of become “my aesthetic”. I think works that embrace us African women should continue to be made, there is always a need for more and different perspectives and experiences of the black women. This is important as these are the same thoughts, and experiences that were not really embraced or immortalized previously so as the youth of today I’ve chosen to immortalize it with the hopes that the generation of African women that will come after me will take it even further.

Portrait I, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 51 x 61 cm

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