Katlego Tlabela in his studio, 2020
Katlego Tlabela was born in Pretoria, South Africa in 1993. He has long been concerned with the multi-disciplinary technical processes of painting, sound, photography and sculptural installation. Tlabela’s artistic interests range from the social and political crises in post-apartheid South Africa; the independent African continent; and the political climate in the USA. Resistance, protest and dialogues around race and positive methods of representation of the black body are visualized through text-based and visual works, often revisiting history and relating it back to contemporary events.
UL Could you talk us through your materials and creative process, from the first stage to the finished piece?
KT This is a rarely asked question. Thank you for that. The first step is to buy a roll of canvas, get it cut and sewn by Aunty Doris, the local seamstress. The canvases get primed with washes of light grey because a white primed canvas is daunting. Each painting starts out differently. It’s either a sketch on paper and then onto the canvas. Sometimes I would start with the underpainting, sometimes I just freestyle it and bravely start painting.
Over the past two years, I have been collecting reference images to aid my creative process. These are sourced from a variety of places, be it Instagram or personal photographs. As the painting develops, I then decide if I want to collage elements of my visual research into the painting. Usually, the collaging births the narrative. To finish off a painting, I choose the least used colour within the painting and use it for the framing on the sewn hem of the canvas.
UL You’ve submitted diptychs to The Medium is the Message, what is it that draws you to this format. What advantages does it bring to your practice?
KT When I first received the call from Azu and Jana inviting me to join the exhibition, the first question I asked was “How many artworks?” They said four to five works for each artist, I was taken aback because I had never seen a group exhibition that placed so much focus on the featured artists and had just started planning out the next few months of work. I accepted the invitation and request for works and decided to kill two (four) birds with one stone by producing two diptychs. I knew I was being overly ambitious but I knew I could do it. I even completed two days before my personal deadline. Working in a large scale is daunting but it allows space for experimentation and breathing. Completing the paintings is satisfactory because the narrative is cohesive. I’m slowly progressing and preparing to work on a larger scale.
UL What is it about the domestic setting that interests you? In particular the luxury domestic setting?
KT The domestic setting forms part of my ongoing body of work, “Nouveau Riche”. In them I depict imagined and familiar interior scenes. Sometimes I don’t include figures because I would like the viewer to imagine themselves as the protagonist. If I do include people, it’s usually real people for resonance.
These scenes are luxurious and praise the newly imagined and real Black Elite. The idea is to challenge the now normalised image of the suffering and impoverished Black Body. I am disassociating myself from that narrative. It’s time for a new vision of ourselves. A vision that may currently be fictional, but ultimately aspirational and attainable. I have been producing these in order to have a substantial series before moving onto the next series.
UL In the past you have considered yourself more of a printmaker than a painter, do the works in The Medium is the Message signal a return to being a painter?
KT I am still a printmaker at heart and by major. I have been reluctant to call myself a painter, because I am still learning. I have only been painting figuratively since February 2020. It has been an interesting learning experience. A couple more canvases to go and then I can dub myself a painter too!
UL After The Medium is the Message what is next for you in terms of shows? Do you see the style or subject of the work itself changing in the near future?
KT This question just reminded me that I have paintings to complete. Well, without saying too much, I am working towards a few local and international group exhibitions and art fairs. I’m particularly excited to be starting works for 3 solo exhibitions scheduled for 2021. I’m still getting a grasp of my subject matter and style so it’s difficult to tell now. I am going with my intuition but aware that the story is much bigger than luxurious domestic settings. Only time will tell.
Black Owned Property IV (After Noah Davis’ Single Mother with Father out of the Picture)
Each: 77 x 77 cm
Tableau Vivant II: Step Ya Money Up! (After Kerry James Marshall’s Club Couple)
Each: 77 x 77 cm