Contemporary artist Thabang Lehobye captures the city in strokes of charcoal
In this series, we talk to artists, creatives, designers and musicians about their work, their inspiration and the challenges they might be facing in today’s different reality.
At first, the landscape seems grim, dark even, strokes of charcoal – there, thick on the paper, here slightly lighter – the contrast immediate, impossible to escape or avoid. But that is the intention, drawing the viewer into the picture, a fleeting moment that says so much about who we are in modern South Africa. And then, like an anomaly – or a surprise – the butterflies appear – white, tiny, many – cutting through the charcoal, like bright beams of light trying to come through the darkness. Grace even.
Thabang Lehobye’s work rummages through the city of Johannesburg: Jeppe on a sunny day, the orange facades of Loveday Street, Ghandi Square’s business. But beyond the urban landscapes, the wonder is in the detail: a pigeon taking off at Ghandi Square; a stack of check bags in front of the Ponte Tower – simply captioned “Chequered connections. Bags full of dreams”; a child on the way to school; taxis and cars parked randomly in downtown Johannesburg. Cityscapes, but bursting with life – even with no visible human in sight – because, as the artist notes, we need to “[look] around and [see] the simple things”.
And when the city is suddenly emptied from its inhabitants, butterflies happen. They conquer, ever so subtly, spaces, determined to exist – a metaphor for our own resistance maybe.
Lehobye, 34, who was born in Soweto and raised in Evaton, Vaal, and Orange Farm, started to work as a visual artist back in 2003, at the Artist Proof Studio (APS), while still at school – he would go back to APS two years later; APS is a community-based print-making centre in Newtown, which was founded in 1991 by Kim Berman and Nhlanhla Xaba. The centre’s list of alumni is remarkable: Philemon Hlungwane, Nelson Makamo and Nicholas Hlobo to name a few, and collaborations with the likes of William Kentridge, Colbert Mashile, David Koloane or Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi.
“We have been able to work with some of the most prominent artists because we are about creating excellence, continually raising our game and developing our technical skills training. The artists who collaborate with us demand these standards and they also enjoy the ethos of APS. They want to be part of building up the next generation of artists,” said Berman in an interview with Ufrieda Ho for Maverick Life.
Lehobye kept on refining his practice – first at the University of Johannesburg where he graduated with a National Diploma in Fine Arts, then at Vega School of Brand Communication where he studied multimedia. He also received patronage from William Kentridge “as part of professional development”. There he discovered a passion for the medium of charcoal, printmaking and animation as well as the city of Johannesburg – which will become one of his most-explored subjects.
“[Joburg], a constant physical space and its ever-changing inhabitants. The Hillbrow tower as a baton, being passed over and over again. My work intends to share slices and moments in time of the city many come to take refuge in, [or] make a living, one way or the other”.
For ‘The Imaginarium’, he shares the work he did when the country went into lockdown.
“It represents a defining moment for many of us. The concept of social-distancing is quite challenging in many ways for people in densely populated areas, especially hawkers selling by street sides of townships and cities. Many of them are women, having no other alternatives.
“The epidemic poses just another challenge for them to make a living. Their daily commute in and around the city carrying bags I see as a symbol of hope for the welfare of their families.
“She finds herself in yet another predicament, yet hope keeps her going. For me, a defining moment in terms of a career as an artist, a moment of clarity and a time for reflecting on my chosen path in my creative endeavours. It will always remind me of a time I decided that I am an artist [above] all else, in the time of a global pandemic,” he says.
During this time, Lehobye has also experimented with video and animation, a medium that gives life to his usually still images.
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“It has given me enough time to experiment more and think of my own story to tell. The story of a boy who easily gets distracted by day-dreaming. “Tshepo – the day dreamer”, I’ve never been any more excited about a project”.
The artist explains that this time of confinement affected him positively as he has been able to balance his work as a designer at FCB (Foote, Cone & Belding, a creative and content agency based in Johannesburg) and his “love for art”.
“There has been talk about a new way of working in the future. I’m fortunate to work with a group of talented individuals at the agency, most of whom are also pushing their creative side hustles such as music, photography, creative writing, etc. This may be a perfect time to relook the way we balance our company work, while drawing inspiration from things closer to our hearts,” he adds.
He has also been fortunate to be able to sell his art – thanks to social media. He says, “The next step would be to incorporate e-commerce into the website I’m working on, a virtual gallery. And in the near future, a studio live-feed”. The butterflies are conquering the city, one flap of wings at a time. DM/ML
To get more information about Thabang Lehobye’s work, you can contact him directly at: [email protected].
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