Zandile Tshabalala exhibits for the first time in SA with BKhz Gallery

Zandile Tshabalala’s upcoming exhibition captures scenes of black life and love. I first officially met Tshabalala at the height of lockdown in 2020. In a short space of time, from 2020 and 2022, the Soweto-born artist and a recent graduate of the University of the Witwatersrand in fine art has become a force of nature in the artworld. 

Tshabalala is focused, calm and comfortable in her own skin. We meet in her studio at the Ellis House Art Building, in the east of Johannesburg, a neighbourhood close to Troyeville, once an artist’s oasis. She enters her studio in a black tracksuit splattered with paint, beaming with positive energy, slightly more open than in 2020, when we digitally connected. Our interviews, then and now, are incompatibly different. Back in 2020, she was barely 20 years old, figuring out her own path in the art world and I was an experienced arts practitioner, with my own expectations, projected ideas and was perhaps not listening. 

Centering black bodies in her paintings, Tshabalala is unafraid and deliberate. My beat at the time of our virtual conversation, arranged by Nomaza Nongqunga-Coupez (a close collaborator, collector and ally), was to write about women artists and their practice during the pandemic’s lockdowns. I had not understood how it was that a young artist could choose such a multifaceted subject matter. I had chosen black women in my practice and here she was, painting them. 

Pleasure and rest: Paintings by Zandile Tshabalala focus on black women in intimate and vulnerable moments such as ‘The Act of Self-Love: Cleansing’

Back at Rosebank’s BKhz Gallery, huge canvases adorn the walls. Faint light brightens up the figures, soft and incomplete, waiting to be finessed for her upcoming show, Lovers In a Secret Place. Nongqunga -Coupez is Tshabalala’s former agent and is the owner of Undiscovered Canvas and founder of the Makwande Artist Residency in South France. She, too, interviewed Tshabalala during the lockdowns, opening up the conversation with her about the importance of her studio practice and how the pandemic catapulted her work. In that particular interview Tshabalala is subdued, almost careful to not touch on too many issues, but she does put her point across. She interrogated the notion of black women being stationed to a singular position, one that is docile and domesticated.

At the time, my knowledge of Tshabalala was limited to observing her growth through the filter life of Instagram. Assuming that this was the case for many of her followers, collaborators and collectors, the monochromatic series of paintings created between 2019 and 2021, depicted images of empowerment, sensuality, sassiness and, in many ways, celebrated the desirable nature of the female form. Tshabalala, through using herself in most of her works, conjures up ideas of black bodies in pleasure and rest, deafening the pervasive, Western art practice of the erasure of black bodies. 

“She has been confident of the story that she wanted to tell and represent, which is the African, black woman experience and that has always been her aim. She’s been executing it from the beginning and keeps getting better and better. It’s without a doubt that she was born to be a superstar,” says Nonqgunga-Coupez, who discovered Tshabalala on Instagram and flew to South Africa in mid-2019 to consign work. 

Shocked by her maturity, I was not ready to write anything until I’d been certain she was the real deal. And that, Tshabalala is. 

“Not every artist gets to say that they experiment in museums,” she quips. 

This time around she does not mince her words. There comes a time in an artist’s journey, when their own perspective matters more than anyone else’s. For the longest time, she was unsettled by the idea of a commercial gallery marriage and has remained independent. 

This is not Tshabalala’s first exhibition. She exhibited at Art Basel in 2021, presenting a body of work curated by Berlin’s Galerie Nagel Draxler, and has carved seamless relationship with the Underdog Collection, where she is listed with two other young South Africans, Malebona Maphutse, based in the US, and Simphiwe Ndzube, based between Cape Town and Los Angeles. 

Her paintings reached the shores of Europe long before she had completed her second year at university. 

“I don’t take it for granted,” she says during our third attempt of conversation on a Saturday afternoon, just under two weeks before her solo exhibition. 

Tshabalala’s career has been marred with scepticism, mystery and at other times, admiration. An avid art collector contends that Tshabalala is one to see and will illuminate the global visual arts landscape in the near future. “I know her work. My perspective is that her ideas are dated, however, I do think she is a brilliant painter but is still maturing. Give her five years or more and she will be massive. I know she is already being invested in and is in many of the international art magazines and shows.” 

Tshabalala’s monochromatic paintings are inspired, for the most part, by French surrealist painter Henri Rousseau. The starting point was to familiarise and learn about portraiture and figuration in art history. She later decided to insert herself and other people in her paintings. One could say the inclusion of the black body is not only a recurring theme in her work but is also critical to her practice.

Tshabalala is not asking for anyone’s permission to be accepted into the South African contemporary art scene. She is aware of her success.  Lovers In a Secret Place, her first exhibition in the country, comprises eight to 10 artworks, all reminiscent of lovers in an intimate setting. The exhibition is a reflection and an introspection of the bewildering paradise and jungle that can be love. 

Tshabalala describes the show as a “homecoming” since she’s risen to fame internationally. BKhz Gallery, founded by artist Banele Khoza, is mending that lost connection between Tshabalala and her country with this exhibition. Tshabalala seeks to inspire a generation of art connoisseurs by showing work that reinterprets love in all its forms. She hopes to “translate her story of love and intimate relationships without holding back or wishing it away”. Exploring this complex topic with the curiosity of a child, the goal is to express an “unstructured paradise”, a term she coined to describe the desired outcome for the show. 

Tshabalala is unapologetically refusing to pander to the restrictions that artists are expected to accept, especially black women artists. It takes a while for anyone interested to learn about Tshabalala’s work — created mostly in acrylic and depicting black womanhood, black love, sensuality and sexuality — to acclimatise to the sharp imagery and precise messaging. Her hands carefully re-write stories of herself as a woman and her family members, while being part of an artistic community that is at times taken for granted. 

Her next exhibition is at the Kunstmuseum Magdeburg in Germany and takes place a week after her inaugural show on South African soil. Titled In Search of My Mother’s Garden, inspired by a book written by Alice Walker in 1983, the works are created in mixed media — unlike the acrylic paintings that will be seen at BKhz Gallery. 

 This will not be her first museum exhibition. In 2021, she received the Kaiserring grant from the Mönchehaus Museum, which allowed her to present works in the 16th century mediaeval sanctuary in Goslar, Germany. As a country, we ought to applaud and give her the flowers she deserves. 

“As an artist, the biggest thing is to pace myself and take my time,” she said, emphasising the responsibility she carries on her shoulders as a creative woman and a businesswoman. 

The comings and goings of each piece happen in the small studio she occupies, and at times sleeps in. Tshabalala makes all the decisions, together with her studio manager, Togo Ntokozo Langa. They navigate the difficult nuances of each artwork, the administration and logistics, shipping to and from countries such as Ghana, Italy, Germany and, recently, Switzerland. The maintenance of the studio space and upholding the peace that is required to masterfully portray the characters she has chosen to portray takes skill, patience and a lot of chutzpah.

Discovered: ‘My Mother’s Garden: Umcumbi (I) — The Gathering’

With a full schedule ahead of her, Tshabalala counts her upbringing in Soweto and her mother as influential in her practice and research. She was probably expected to have started handling artworks at the back of a studio as an apprentice or work in administration waiting to be discovered. Not her. Tshabalala takes pride in being a woman living by her own rules and discovering the treasure trove of talent she possesses. Just as the writer Audre Lorde wrote in her poem, New Year’s Day, “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.” These words became an anthem for black women around the world and Tshabalala seems to embody that spirit. No matter the age, the artist she is choosing to be is brave and true to herself. As she says, “I want people to experience the canvas outside the gallery.” 

Lovers In a Secret Place opens on 2 July at BKhz Gallery, Keyes Art Mile in Rosebank, Johannesburg.

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