Atang Tshikare is a Bophuthatswana-raised, multidisciplinary artist currently based in Cape Town. Under his company Zabalazaa Design, Atang has collaborated with brands from MTV Base and Puma to Adidas and BMW. His collectible works have evolved into sculptural furniture and functional art; zoomorphic creatures crafted in a wide range of materials. Atang’s works all have a vivacity in them, from the predatorial poise of Itjhebe to the sun-saluting tendrils of Okae. Atang breathes life into his creations by sculpting them in the same way the wilderness would, darkening parts the sun would burn or smoothing ones that shrubs would scratch, creating a context and a life-story for them, without using a single word.
From Wilfredo Lam to Lajos Kassak, the western surrealist movement has always looked to Africa and the non-Western world for inspiration. But, unlike theirs, the references to Africa in Atang’s work are not the surface-level aesthetic borrowings of a foreigner, but personal messages from a native African man. Atang’s use of wood and clay, his integration of grass-weaving and earthy tones, and his focus on natural forms, all belie a creative with an in-depth appreciation, knowledge and love for his roots and his surroundings. Tshikare found time in his busy schedule to speak with us about his work and his creative process.
Can you give a quick summary of the workflow that goes into making one of your pieces? What are the main points that happen between ideation and a finished piece of work?
There are 5 points when I do a primary sculpture (one that only uses one material: wood, bronze, etc.). First, I draw a few ideation sketches. Then, from those sketches, I pick the best one and re-draw it from a couple of different angles to get a better idea of what it’ll look like in 3-D.
From there, I then create a maquette. A maquette is a 5-30 cm clay model, with Styrofoam inside, if it needs a stable core. The clay is used on the surface so that I can mould the finer points like the legs.
I then make a life-sized model, once again with Styrofoam, but also with an armature. Armature are metal pieces I use to create the ‘skeleton’ of the piece. I do this until I’m happy with how it looks and how it stands.
After this, I cover the model with clay or with something called Material 1. This way, I can represent the texture of the final product, whether that be smooth or grainy.
The last step is to send the life-sized model to a guy I often collaborate with who works with bronze. Using my model, he then creates the final product.
What are the differences in how you would approach one of your illustrations versus how you would create a sculpture?
When I work with 2D, I draw the characters interacting with other characters (if they are part of the story) as well as their surroundings. My sculptures, however, are singular creations, so their surroundings have to be implied with elements of their design. For example, my piece Maotwana Finyela is burnt on the top, which symbolises that it lives in a hot area, while its underside is smooth and burnished to show that it brushes up against hard surfaces as it moves. Its eyes are long like a snail’s, but they also move independently because it needs to see far and wide. My illustrations show the environment while my sculptures imply it.
You’ve said that your father’s graphic style influenced your own. How so? What elements of his work do you feel stuck with you, and why?
The influence of my father’s work goes further than a style of work. Because he was a cartoonist, he was only given about nine or ten boxes in which to communicate a message. Because of this limitation, he had to make sure to give only the necessary information in every frame. In watching him do this, I learned how to be efficient with my art; to say everything I want to say it in a single frame. Like with Maotwana Finyela, I can convey information just with light or with texture, or with anything else, I include on the piece. I also learned how to still create good work in environments that are different from mine or where everything I need isn’t there on a silver platter.
Other than creating work for your own business, you have also been commissioned by other companies. How do you work for a business with their brand, while keeping the essence of your style in-tact?
When I do artwork for myself, art that goes into a gallery or museum, it is under my name. When I do art for another business however, it goes through my company, Zabalazaa. When working for someone, we have a set of questions we ask about what they want from us in terms of texture, light etc. All the things we need to know to narrow the idea down into a single picture, which we then execute. The execution, unlike for my work, isn’t a personal narrative, it’s one that comes from the client. In saying that, my personal experience still goes into the work. Because of the experimentation with colour, texture and materials that I’ve done, I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t, and I use that knowledge to figure out how to best execute the clients’ narrative. Another difference between the work I do as Atang and the work for Zabalaaza is that Zabalaaza tends not to break format as much. There are fewer extremes, and less aesthetic pushing’s because otherwise, I’m putting my own view on somebody else’s work. Zabalaaza is also more collaborative. I stopped collaborating with my own works because they became more about my personal narrative, like being Tswana and being black, which is something I couldn’t do if I were working on something for a company like BMW.
How do you toe the line between form and function when it comes to your more utilitarian creations? They are art pieces obviously, but also have to serve a purpose. How do you go about striking that balance?
When I create works, 95% of the time they are just art. It just so happens that in the middle or towards the end of the creation, it feels like it can be sat on, or eyes can be lights instead of glass. It’s something that I’ve been doing so long that, when I’m creating something, I don’t consciously think about the function.
How do you go about infusing your Tswana heritage into your pieces?
When I create my works, and they have a Tswana influence, it’s because I myself am Tswana. When a person, any person, creates something, they do so based on who they are. So, when I create, I speak about who I am and my culture. As a person, you put the things that you know, that you feel, that you’ve seen in your art. You put yourself into your work because that’s the simplest way to do it when you do this, you inevitably see your culture reflected. They say the best way to understand a person is to speak to them in their language, and I guess when I’m speaking through my work, I’m speaking in Tswana.
2020 has been a tumultuous time for bla(c)k people (not that it ever isn’t), what part do you think art has in improving the bla(c)k experience?
2020 has been a revelatory year, and we’re seeing a lot of things that black people experience coming to the forefront. What I think has happened though, is that as a black person I’ve seen things that I need to be more serious about; not just about how I get treated, but about how my fellow African people are treated. From what I’m seeing, black people are putting their work out there more ferociously, kicking down doors in ways that they haven’t before. In South Africa, there’s always been inequality, but people seeing what has been happening overseas has shown them that if you don’t have your own voice, you’re always going to be swallowed by whatever is around you. I think seeing people of your colour in a better situation than you, validates that being black is a great thing, creating a wave that pushes everyone to do more than what they used to. Hopefully, these waves will keep on moving forwards and keep encouraging black people to express themselves and keep breaking down barriers.
How do you feel the natural world informs your designs? How does mother-nature come through in your work?
I use a lot of natural materials that all have their own vibrations and capabilities. For example, if you put stone, bronze, and wood in the sun, they all absorb heat at different rates. Wood absorbs heat faster than stone, bronze and other metals absorb heat faster than both of them. Those kinds of differences are important for me to know in terms of the limits and advantages of a material. Nature comes in because being in nature and seeing how materials interact with their natural environment is the best way to learn how to mimic their attributes.
You have taken part in judging and mentoring younger designers which means distilling your knowledge into a teachable form. What are the most salient points/important lessons you try to impart onto them?
The most common point that I put out there is that people should be real with themselves. You can’t copy something that you’ve seen just because it’s popular or sold at a high price. In my opinion, the more someone self-reflects, the more chance they have of finding things that are amazing and that nobody else knows about. People who aren’t who I am or are where I am, people who are foreign, don’t know as much about my situation than I do. That knowledge of self and those layers is really important. Another lesson I try to emphasise, regardless of whatever creative field you’re in, is the ‘three geometries’.
Your ‘Circle’: If you have a circle of friends or a circle of peers that you’re always around, you should try to move away from them while creating. Because the people you’re around will always influence what you’re making.
Your ‘Box’: You have to get out of your ‘box’. Your box could be whatever you’ve been thinking about for the last two or three years, or whatever situation you’ve been boxed into because of the commissions you’ve been undertaking or the journey that you’ve been on. Whatever the reason, you need to think to yourself ‘how do I get myself out of this box that I’ve been in’. For example, the works that I’ve done for the past few years have been very zoomorphic, very fauna based. So, recently, I’ve started doing more floral things. In the past two weeks, I put up a post where a sculpture was based on a tree, and another was based on a mountain, which is something I’ve never really done before. Even the way I use materials has changed. In the past I would usually only use one material in sculpture, two at most. But now I’m combining three or even four into a single piece. You also have to see yourself in different ways. We all have different facets of ourselves: you’re one person when you’re with your father, another person when you’re with your wife, another when you’re with your friends and so forth. Accessing different parts of yourself when making art is a good way to break out of your box whilst still being true to yourself.
The ‘Triangle’: You must always try-new-angles. If you’ve made something one way, you should always look at it and try to make it differently; try a new angle. For example, if you’ve made something out of wood, try making it in paper and see how it comes out, or try making it in ceramic and see how that comes out. Because, by using a new material, you learn new qualities about the thing you’ve already been doing, whether they be more simple or more complex.
The most salient points, the one that I want to stress the most, are that people should look for answers in their own environment and also, must be daring and must take risks. I say this because I’ve seen a lot of boring ideas, and as a judge, I don’t even give the work a second look.
On that same point, has being a judge and mentor affected the way you look at your own work?
It hasn’t changed the essentials of who I am, but it has changed what I consider when I do work. Because, when you become a judge, you are thought of as a master of some sort. I’ve judged at universities where their place at the top and their expectations haven’t changed in a decade, so I have to look at my past and think whether I’ve evolved or improved in that time. Am I worthy of being a judge? Am I worthy of telling other people my opinion about their work? It can be contentious telling someone what to do, so I think it’s better if I judge them in ways that I have already judged myself. It allows me to do it in a nicer way. When I first judged internationally, the other judges I was working with were all at the top of their field, so I wasn’t sure it was my place to judge along with the likes of them. Once I started judging and saw that I was able to criticise constructively, it reaffirmed my knowledge and my capabilities. Another way that judging has affected my work is that the quality of my work has to be suitable on a global scale, especially as I’ve started judging internationally. My work has to be good enough, that someone I’m judging can’t point to it and say ‘you’re not doing this thing well