Isaac Zavale On Depicting The Current State of South Africa, The eKasi Art Scene and His Time In The Breathing Space

Spirited and passionate Mozambican artist Isaac Zavale speaks proudly and profoundly of his work as an artist and where draws inspiration from. He grew up in Vosloorus, in the east of Johannesburg where the culture inspired him in his creative pursuits to be an artist that has an appreciation without romanticising the struggles our people face. As a fine artist, muralist, and co-founder of Prints on Paper studio, Zavale’s work is a rumination and honest depiction of the current state of South Africa, and how the rich and undervalued culture from eLokshin, we see this on his debut exhibition, Joni Ya Milenge at the Kalashnikov Gallery. He recently collaborated with fellow mentees from The Breathing Space, for the exhibition, Nkosi Sikelela at Goethe Institute, where he says was supposed to be his own but invited a few of his friends to be a part of it. Let’s find out more about his experiences.

What was the highlight of your experience at The Breathing Space?

My goal was to meet up with new people, It’s kinda like I’ve achieved what I was seeking for. I’ve managed to meet up with new creatives that are good. We share ideas and I do other projects with them, and also gaining new information or knowledge through The Breathing Space. That was my highlight, actually. And also seeing the new talent that’s was kinda like given a platform.”

Where do you see South African art going in the next five years and do you think it holds space for black creatives?

“I see the South African art, especially now in this current era, in 2010 it was very hard for uneducated artists to have access. Now I feel like if us as artists we allow other people who are not informed or like in a certain direction, we should share those skills so we can expand the field or expand the pawns in the chess game, so the game can become exciting. I see now there is a light for young black artists who are especially like from the township, they could understand what story they could tell even if they don’t have that formal training they’re starting to understand what is art what makes art what stories do we have to narrate or what we have to tell to the public and I see it growing, and I think within five years, we’re gonna have so many pawns which is gonna make the game to be very exciting than having this exclusivity like how it was before. I’m very happy because also like within the Breathing Space, I met so many people, some of them never had so much access into the gallery, but since I wasn’t there as a mentor (because I used to be a mentor myself), I just decided also not to become selfish as a black artist towards the younger generation because I felt like the game is boring if it’s only a few faces that we know of, because the game becomes very exciting if there’s new faces who are coz it makes everyone pull up their socks and change their rhythm of playing. So for me it’s very exciting now because I saw a different talent, a different style, coz we’re quite young as South Africa, in terms of art, coz if you can see our art is quite like certain direction, it’s more like paintings or whatever, but when I was there in The Breathing Space, it’s still like 2D yes, but like it was quite diverse. We had like lettering artists, collage artists, and kinda like semi-abstract and fashion designers and then I started to see like there is some possibilities, we are going somewhere and I was very happy for The Breathing Space platform, it was a platform where we could express ourselves maybe share that knowledge with the others who were questioning us.”

Your work has many rich, proudly South African influences, how do you translate this into your work?

“I normally look at what our current South Africa is about, especially Jo’burg. I just narrate that in such a way that I want to tell the story like, “Yes we have challenges but the challenges are not our downfall.” We can see the light within the challenges that’s why I prefer to symbolise my characters or my paintings in a not being sad or perform poverty porn because that’s not our everyday life. So for me it’s just to talk about what’s happening now I’ve seen most artists – I wanted to be different from other artists – I have to be unique than others so I had to look at my everyday life and reflect it on my work and also see my people as if they’re not being challenged because everytime they represent my people, it’s more as if they’re going through the challenges but that’s not the case. For me I just want to see the harmony, and the beauty within the space and how we also access the space that was neglected (not given) to us. We’re bombarded with so many things from Western culture that we kinda like have challenges with our identity or our beliefs or ubuntu bethu, as Africans. The only thing we’re longing for it’s like Western things. So I’m trying to look at those things that were longing for too.”

What is your opinion on the art scene eKasi?

“Since I grew up in Vosloorus, a township in the east of Johannesburg, I feel like the art scene eKasi sometimes it’s quite challenging because you don’t have access to things and to have that kind of access you have to go to like the city and sometimes I just find it unfair because the opportunities are only there to the people who are in the city. I find it very sad because in townships we don’t have those kinds of facilities or access to things, unless you have to work for someone. It becomes like a long tunnel to see your success or to a possibility while you’re in the township, coz those things you think that they don’t exist, or you think they’re far from you, have to be certain educated but I think if we get the access to those things in the townships then it might change.”

What helps you focus on an off day?

“For me it’s just to hang around with friends, just to do like a studio visit. That’s why I did The Breathing Space, I went there because I was feeling very low because of the pandemic and I felt so isolated from everyone and also meeting new people, that’s why I was like actually I should do this just to meet other people, just to be out of my studio and just meet new people. So that’s what I normally do sometimes to just go like visit friends, or take like random walks or go skate or go play in town, in the city, or go back to the hood. Engage with the people in the hood and hear their reasoning or their challenges.”

What is the caffeine that keeps you going?

“For me it’s just understanding my ethnicity as a black person, and also growing up in South Africa and also looking at the challenges that were faced by our parents or our grandparents. Like the old generation and try to question that, look at that everyday life; how do we function, how do we live? Like especially that’s why my work is more about the city, my current work I just make work about what’s happening in the city. I’m trying to find harmony within that space and that’s why I prefer to walk or cycle and also be inside the space so that I don’t become someone who narrates a story from top of the hill, instead being inside of that situation because it makes me become a part of it, it gives me more sense. That’s why everytime when I’m in Joburg, I prefer to walk than be indoors, go to spaces that people don’t normally access, be in Hillbrow or maybe go to Yeoville or be in the inner city just to get the depth and understand what I’m talking about. So for me that’s what keeps me going and also to reflect on our past traumas as South Africans.”

How did you know it was time to breathe new life into your passion project and pursue it as a career?

“Actually, I was born as an artist. I’ve been practising art since I was a kid, then I initiated to take art very seriously in 2010, because they was the only choice that I had because I never wanted to work for a man or someone else because for me being in that system of working for someone, it kind of never gave me a guarantee to be there for long. Then I was like, ‘I have this talent, I’d rather extend it and see where it takes me.’ Then in 2010 when I went to art school, I decided to take this talent and pursue it as a career.”

How do you deal with the uncertainty that comes with being an independent artist?

“Sometimes you have to understand that sometimes in life, or like in a period of a year, there’ll be ups and some other times there’ll be some downs. When I have my downs that’s when I have to console myself by making more work to satisfy my soul, and when there’s ups that’s where I have to also work because I’m starting to earn something. And also not just drag the whole process because I know at some point like it won’t be the same so I have to use the moment that I actually have but not giving up on myself. That’s the beauty about being a creative. And also maybe it’s all about understanding yourself and understanding your phases that you go through because it’s more like seasonal, you know? Even like life or a career itself changes. We have to embrace them and understand the ups and downs, and also with those ups and downs I don’t allow them to pull me down because sometimes when we are having our ups or our successes, we tend to be happy but when we have our downs we tend to be very sad and feel like the world is against us. You have to understand that and you also have your downs and you still have to embrace them and seeing how you embrace your ups.”

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