An unwavering gaze. Leisurely looking. Neon talons punctuate a poised hand. Reclining into the soft embrace of cascading furs. What started from the genesis of a broken heart has developed into a striking body of work. Thinking bout’ you (2019), the first of the series, is in a sense a visual reminder of the artist’s internal strength and resilience. “After stepping away after painting this work, I realised that it does more than just speak of a heartbreak…now I’m starting to deal with topics of representation of black women”.
Cow/Mother, Acrylic and enamel on canvases ; 2019.
Tshabalala’s work is in part, an investigation and re-imagining of the art historical canon. (In)famous works like Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) serve as a prompt to probe questions around the power dynamics implicit in the construction of race and gender. “Why is it that every time that there is a black and a white woman present [in a painting], the white woman will be used to represent beauty…but the black woman will be placed in these compromising situations, placed at the back and start to disappear?” In deconstructing historical depictions of what has been deemed sensual and desirable, Tshabalala is interested in, “bringing that woman at the back forward and showing that black women can be sensual and beautiful”.
Thinking bout’ you, Acrylic and enamel on canvas; 2019.
In addition, the highly pigmented skin tone in Tshabalala’s work is influenced by Kerry James Marshall’s paintings, noting that, “I really appreciate how bold, in-your-face and inescapable the blackness is”. She adds that, “there is no diluting it”. The legacy of colonialism still ripples through society, felt in forms like colourism. Through a blend of popular-culture and theoretical references, Tshabalala’s portraits are beautifully unapologetic in embracing blackness.
Zandile, Oil and mixed media on canvas; 2019.
Animal print has become characteristic of her daring work – describing how, “there is nothing that screams ‘bold’ like an animal print”. Cow/Mother (2019) pushes the aesthetic, while simultaneously referencing the revered cow in Eastern Religion and Zulu culture, as well as acting as a response to how the term has been used to degrade women. These provocative portraits actively resist the taboos around feminine desire, “I really want my work to encourage people to just go out there and live their wildest fantasies”. The artist goes on to say, “stop trying to conceal things within, be free and in touch with your truest self”. Simply being, can offer a radical embodiment of oneself.