Atang Tshikare: the migration from surface design to sculpture

Multidisciplinary artist, husband and dad Atang Tshikare chats about how his newfangled passion has developed from his early days of drawing and surface design, and about the thrill of collaborating with members of his family. 

Atang, you seem to be focused on sculpture at the moment. How did your journey into this specific discipline come about and how is this different from your approach to product and surface design?

My journey with sculpture started with drawing on paper and working on other surfaces, graffiti and so on. At some point, I started collaborating with people who were already making products, your conventional furniture, wallpaper and other items available at your usual décor retailers. 

For me, that route didn’t really make sense because of the way I think. Everything I see is organic: plants, water, earth and so on – so, by the time I had done a few collaborations, I had seen enough to know that there was a different direction for me.

At the time, I started on my first piece called Le Bone Lebone. My journey from drawing to collaborating on surface designs and then onto sculpture seemed like a journey that was naturally bound to happen. I always felt I needed to represent myself more. Two-dimensional felt limiting at the time, so sculpture was a natural progression. 

Surface design is about taking something that already exists and adapting it by adding something more that will make it look different. For me, this is one way of creating work collaboratively and in larger volumes. I’d like to think this is an area I’ve done well in under my Zabalazaa brand, whereas art and sculpture are a product of me and my own thoughts.

Do you think you have a particular aesthetic in your work, and where does this aesthetic originate from?

Yeah, I have my own aesthetic: organic, zoomorphic, anamorphic and vernacular architectural forms all influence my aesthetic. It comes from things that are around me like nature, people and culture.

Who are your design and art heroes? 

People from the African continent who have used indigenous methods of creating things. Like the Basotho people who use grass to make items like baskets, rugs and hats. This is something they’ve been doing for decades. 

As you move around the continent, you find different specialities, such as the zinc and copper skills in Botswana, stone in Zimbabwe and so on.

These time-honoured skills speak to who I am as a Tswana person.

These are the places where design started on the continent, where functional art was a norm. These are basic skills that have evolved and are now seen in a contemporary light. 

The materials used are indigenous to the area, so the journey of something from raw material to finished product is all in one place. This gives unparalleled knowledge to the area as well as a quality output.

Imagine that your house is on fire and the family is safely outside. What do you grab to save from the flames and why?

Two things: my records and my books, they are memories and they are answers, respectively. The records are holders of memories (timestamps), whilst the books provide all sorts of answers in life. Everything else is digital and replaceable.

Your latest work entitled, Modimolle, is a totem-like stacked sculptural piece. Tell us about this work, its functionality and who it was created for?

Modimolle is a sacred mountain in Limpopo, and this art piece is a representation of it. It consists of three side tables, a seat and a standalone sculpture at the top. From the bottom to the top, it’s basically made up of the mantle of the mountain, the crust, the bedrock and finally the flora, like trees and bushes. Whilst at the top, we have a character called Okae: a character I’ve created that is part of a bigger story I am hoping to publish as a novel this year.

In terms of the materials, starting from the top this time; we used Jacaranda to create the character Okae, then Stone Pine, followed by sandstone, bronze with a rough brown patina and then at the bottom it’s bronze again, but this time in black with brass “bumps” as accents. It measures about 2.1 meters tall and there is an edition of five. 

Modimolle is an art piece for a property called Clifton Terraces in Cape Town. The client allowed me the freedom to come up with the concept. The only brief was that he wanted a tall cylindrical piece, so I made one and in the process, I created five separate pieces that work individually or as a single sculpture.

Tell us about Mopane, another of your recent works.

When I look at it, I see something that’s poetic. Mopane relates back to the story I am creating and is a type of nourishing vegetation within the setting that the Okae character is journeying through. All will be revealed when I release my story this year.

This piece originated from a feeling I had that was perfectly contemplated by the client afterwards, “it feels like the branches of your sculpture connect us all to each other, entangle us in our complexities, hold us up and anchor us down. Like a melting pot that stopped boiling half way, we are left with a half-baked sense of who we are, and what we all mean to each other and our world”. When a client says something like that about a piece it says so much about the way it’s created and the words that can fill up one’s heart about it.

With regards to the materials in this piece, the black stained wood (sanded with 1600 grit sandpaper) combined with brass and sandstone work with the materiality of my other pieces I’ve created to form a collective.

Can you expand on the choice of materials in your work? There seems to be a considered use of different materials, and we are keen to know where this stems from. 

When I look at my work, materials help to convey a feeling. For example, surfaces that are rough represent a wild side or tension, whilst smoother surfaces reflect a calmer feeling. These kinds of connections are what I think about when I look at textures and materials. My choices have an intention and they express an abundance of feelings. 

When you visit the homes of the people of Lesotho, you’ll notice the outside of these dwellings are rough and protect the inhabitants from the elements, whilst inside it is smooth (because of the way they’ve applied the dung to the floors and walls) and comforting like the womb of a woman. Everything they use is informed by their surroundings and what they have access to. I too am guided by what indigenous materials are available to me.

How have the likes of Southern Guild and OKHA impacted on your career as an artist? 

Southern Guild were instrumental in getting my work out internationally into places like Miami and Dubai. My work involves so much creativity and ingenuity which needs to be seen internationally. The patrons of these international fairs really understand and appreciate what goes into my art, as does the team at Southern Guild. I am always appreciative when they take my work to these international fairs.

Similarly, ARRCC and OKHA’s invaluable knowledge and connections – from Brazil and New York to Los Angeles – provide further opportunity for my work to be seen and appreciated by a global market.

How (if at all) does being a husband, and now father, impact your creative journey?

Being a father has made my journey even more sturdy. I now have a dependant that I have to look out for. 

I work with my wife creatively. For example, she’s helping to edit the short novel I am writing. We work together so beautifully with positive tension that shapes our thinking. We travelled to Lesotho last year for research to speak with shamans, shepherds and all sorts of different people to extract cultural information about our roots.

We also travelled to Kuruman and Bloemfontein to get some social and cultural experts and people who are from the earth in that magical way that you really don’t find anymore. That’s the kind of relationship I have with my wife. 

This story I am writing and the work I am currently creating are all based on my son. I am creating a kind of ode to him and hoping he’ll inherit my creative genes and continue the legacy.   

If you could collaborate with anyone in the world, who would it be and what would you collaborate on?

I am already collaborating with the people that I want to collaborate with: my son and my wife. I’ve also collaborated with my grandmother. So, the family that I love, at that depth, I try and work with when I can. Sadly, my mother passed away a while ago in 2002, but I am also doing work with her. She was in property development and I am also exploring the possibility of creating some buildings, so there are parallels between us there. I also worked with my dad on his first autobiographical graphic novel. I did the inside cover for the book and helped with the editing. I continue to work with him on some other projects.

What can we expect from you in the future?

More beauty, I guess. I am looking at myself less and less as a designer. I am connecting with the emotions and intellect that go into creating art and I hope people see me like that. For 2021 I am creating a couple of shows with my son: for my son and about my son and the first one will be held on 3 March at 196 Victoria Road in Woodstock.

I’ll also be working with different international artists from a cross-section of genres including music, visuals and more. | @atangtshikare

WORDS: J-P de la Chaumette, Rachele Button and Atang Tshikare
PRODUCTION: J-P de la Chaumette
PHOTOGRAPHY: Hero image by Kope Figgins and others supplied (as credited).