In her latest series Enter Paradise, South African innovative artist Zandile Tshabalala reflects on her everyday life during the global pandemic whilst redefining her idea of paradise in her ethereal dreamscape paintings. The pieces feature decadent figurative self-portraits that embody Zandile’s state of being, whilst engaging with some of the challenges she has faced within the last year. With progressive themes surrounding gender and race, Zandile discusses with us the importance of inclusive representation and what that means for society today.
Your latest exhibition Enter Paradise, which was held at Ada Contemporary Art Gallery in Accra (Ghana) features a series of figurative self-portraits portraying an opulent depiction of Black female figures. Where did you draw inspiration from when creating the works?
For this particular exhibition, I wanted to expand on previous ideas on paradise that I had previously engaged with. Due to the current global pandemic, I have been challenged to think about and find paradise in my space as that is where I was most of the time. This engagement had me in a state of reflection about my influences, space and position, and also about my general engagement with my works. I’d say that my inspiration for the works came from my every day.
The works feature powerful narratives surrounding the reclaiming of Black female identity. What are your thoughts and experiences with your own identity?
Since starting to paint self-portraits, I’ve gone through different journeys with the self which involves a lot of confrontation with regards to how I see myself and who I believe I am. I have experienced a lot of unveiling and growth and also phases of awareness with regards to my position in the world as a young Black woman, one who is also a creative.
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You make a nod to the artist Henri Rosseau in this particular series. What is your relationship with past painters and which artists do you tend to look to for inspiration?
I am firstly a student not only of an institution but in all aspects of life. For me, artists who have come before me have engaged with different subjects, some similar to those that also strike my interest. It is the engagement that differs, as the context is not the same.
Since being introduced to the avant-garde’s theory of reference, deference and difference, I have come to realise that there are artists who have done what I had intended to do, and thus my job becomes to find the gaps which these artists may have not been able to fill or to develop a perspective that is relevant to modern issues and views within our society.
Some of my favourite artists, and with whom I constantly engage with include Caravaggio – who painted the most beautiful men in my opinion, Henri Rousseau – who allowed the mind to travel without the body moving an inch. Kerry James Marshall – who has dignified the imagery of the Black man, Njideka Akunyili Crosby – who is very meticulous with her detail and is very intentional in her works. I consider these artists as virtual mentors.
A lot of your work tends to include a vibrant colour palette, with strong uses of primary colours juxtaposed with darker tones such as black or brown. How do you come about choosing the colours for each work?
When it comes to my colour palette, I tend to be slightly spontaneous. There is a feeling of lusciousness and assertiveness that I look for and find in the combination of different colours. 'Contrasts' is the keyword in my working with colour.
What techniques and processes do you use when creating pieces such as the ones featured in Enter Paradise?
Typically, I will start by selecting the focus on which I want the works to be based on whether it be a feeling/attitude or narrative. This is when I do most of my research, and I also tend to go through a lot of imagery of my favourite painters.
Upon finding this base, I move onto my photo library to check for suitable references, or I take some reference images. From there, I move straight onto the canvas. I draw my reference image (I usually am more focused on the posture and gesture), and I tend to change my reference image quite a lot as I paint. I am more focused on executing my initial thoughts than the image itself. Once I feel like I am getting what I am looking for, I stop.
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The paintings tend to be set in a utopic, dreamscape paradise filled with familiar aspects of reality. What’s the creative process behind the radiant worlds you create?
When engaging with my dreamscape, I am most likely to do a lot of non-digital photoshopping. By that, I mean that I layer different images of the space I am trying to depict together with images of foliage that I want present in the work.
You’ve created an array of compelling artworks at such a young age. How long have you been painting/creating art?
I have been creating since primary school, and I think my works started taking more direction in the year 2019 when I started being a bit more critical and selective in the kind of works I did. I have been challenging myself to grow as a creative ever since then.
Has visual art always been something you’ve wanted to do or did you have any other career choices in mind growing up?
I actually wanted to do fashion in my childhood. When I learnt about fine art in grade 10, this is when I decided to become a painter. I was very specific in that regard.
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Your work tends to focus on crucial themes surrounding gender and race. How important is this representation to you?
This representation for me is very important due to its power and ability to shape one’s mind. The more you see something, the more it becomes normal to you.
With the lockdowns forcing a lot of us to adjust to a new normal, how have you felt during this period and has it altered the way that you work? 
Lockdown has challenged me to move and find a working space sooner than I had planned to, and this was due to the lack of space back home. I guess that I’ve had to tackle more responsibilities and get used to my own company.
You’ve recently been involved in a variety of exciting and successful solo exhibitions, what should we expect from you next in the near future?
In the near future, I will be part of more exciting shows, my desire is for the works to physically be seen in as many parts of the world as possible.
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