A brooding week has given way to a sweltering Saturday and dashed the hopes I had for a dark and indulgent backdrop for my interview. It is approximately 1pm and I am late; late so I am running; running so I am annoyed that the dewy face I so careful “put on” an hour ago is metamorphosing into a slick, shiny mess. I finally arrive at the agreed upon location, Sgotti cocktail bar, Masa Centre (in the CBD of Gaborone) 45 minutes late. Nobody but the chatty waiting staff and a lethargic looking bartender are there. Five minutes later my friend Omphemetse, whom I decided to invite to the interview to meet Thebe (I’ve seen them take a keen interest in each other on social media and decided this would make a perfect introduction) arrives, and twenty minutes after that, so does Thebe.
I am livid, but looking into his face makes it hard to stay that way for long. He towers significantly over me, with a congregation of locs sitting obediently atop a beaming face. Not only is Thebe somebody I consider a good friend, he is one of Botswana’s most talented artists, and certainly one to watch. Thebe has only been painting for about two years (I literally gasped when he told me) and has seen his work exhibited in the National gallery, with visitors to the exhibition including the Former president His Excellency Festus Mogae. He is also one of the 2015 nominees of the The Barclay’s L’Atelier competition – Africa’s most prestigious Art and Design competition. Winners of the competition stand a chance to explore the world, learning about different art and design trends and developing their own skill and perspective as artists. Thebe’s trajectory is nothing short of remarkable for such a newbie.
As we settle down, I order a glass of wine, Omphemetse a beer. We both watch Thebe order a cider with some trepidation; he clearly wasn’t expecting a boozy Q&A. Throughout the interview, I’ll watch him carefully consider my questions, and many times, answer them with the very same trepidation.
How exactly have you honed your skills as an artist?
I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember but it wasn’t until secondary that I first took art as a subject. I was mostly concerned with mediums like pencil, charcoal, etc because I had tunnel vision aspirations of being a comic book artist or an animator. I got burnt out with all things art during and after form 6. The workload was a lot and I didn’t enjoy it as much (my final grade reflected this). I stopped drawing for almost three years and only picked it back up in late 2013. Then I found out about an art class at my University and registered for that. Between picking the pencil back up and starting to paint I dabbled in everything from editorial cartooning to fashion illustration. The course was also mostly concerned with pencil work and drawing but it was good for sharpening up my foundation skills. Our final project for the class was a painting exercise and that is where I got a taste of working with paint on canvas. Somehow after that I got it into my head that I could be a good painter so I bought some acrylic paints and canvases of my own and jumped in feet first. My drawing skills made the segue to painting easier because at its core painting is also about foundation and structure. Youtube videos also helped me a lot, especially for portrait painting. I then made the switch to oils because acrylics dried way too fast for my liking and process
What informs your work? Is it life experiences, social and political phenomena? Also, what emotions do you have when creating your pieces?
I believe the best art always has a bit of both, the personal and the observant perspectives, so I would definitely say both. I try and look at the unseen things and machinations that influence how we live our lives. Things like narratives, constructs (such as culture and gender) etc, and either reconcile or juxtapose them with the lone figure. This figure could be borne out of my own personal history or someone else’s, even one that is made up. I neither actively deny nor claim the ‘political’ label because life, at least for people who tick the same demographic boxes as I do life is political. I also borrow from literary theory and film and comic book storytelling at conceptual and technical levels.
The art scene in Botswana definitely has a long way to go, and currently you’re among a crop of artists who’s gaining recognition even beyond our borders. How does it feel that in years to come you will likely become a reference for art in Botswana, say, the way Malick Sidibe or Seydou Keita are references for photography in Mali?
I feel like that is too far off and those names are too huge for me to begin to imagine myself in a similar position. If you ask me that question again in years to come, maybe when I’m a mid-career artist then I’ll probably have an answer for you. But even if it’s not me, for Botswana to have similarly statured figures like that of her own would be amazing.
How much support (vis a vis mentorship, capital) does an artist like yourself require to create their work? And what do you think local institutions can do as far as contributing to that support system?
As a painter the material cost of my practice is something that is ever-present. I’m not advocating for handouts but support in the way of actually buying our work is great because it validates an artist two-fold. The first level being financial and the second being the fact that someone actually fell in love or was so engaged by something you created that they want to have it forever (or until the resale value doubles and they can auction it off). Exhibition opportunities are also a big way to help young artists, people can’t engage with your work if they can’t see it. In terms of mentorship, I think it is really important for young artists; from fellow artists, institutionally and otherwise. There was a permeating aesthetic in local painting for a few years that was repeated over and over again because young artists would simply copy popular work, sometimes brush stroke for brush strokes, and present it as their own mostly because they didn’t know why that was wrong. As Botswana is aiming for entry into the wider contemporary art scene I think local facilitators are starting to change what they pass down to young artists as well. Local workshops for awards and competitions are starting to encourage different kinds of artistic practices like installations and encourage more conceptual thinking in our artists. I think the results are being seen in the type of work that is being made and the type of work that is being rewarded.
The only problem that could still persist is when the government purse strings are opened. They support a lot of artists, which is a wonderful thing but they perpetuate the current view of art-as-decoration since that is what the art bought for government offices primarily serves as.
Not to mention work that could be seen as critical of the powers that be. My entries into the L’Atelier were to an extent about how patronage, be it governmental or corporate, impacts the psyche of the artist at the level of creation as well as the work that ends up being made.
One of my favourite artists, Kara Walker once said “If you’re a black artist you could paint a wall of smiley faces and someone would still ask you “why are you so angry?””. What do you feel about the stereotyping of black artists as ones who work from only a political axis? Is that an axis you work from yourself?
Speaking as a fan of these artists I can recognize that their existence as humans is political, their existence in the art world is political and thus the work they make would be automatically be presumed to be political. It’s definitely not fair to do so and I think this perception can be fought from the other side of the aisle, at the curatorial level, at the art critiquing level. It would mean more diverse voices at these levels in the mainstream art world, people without as much bias when engaging with work by black and other minority artists.
I’ve thought about this and speaking as an artist from Botswana, the political blackness labelling isn’t so prevalent because the art scene in Botswana is so insular from the wider world, we don’t play by their rules because we don’t know them yet. And since as a black person, I’m not a minority in my own country, I have a different experience. Artists like Meleko Mokgosi who are out there would have more experience with this. In terms of the ‘political’ axis, I would say yes I work from it. But sometimes I discard it, dance round the edge of it or lightly weave it in there.
Still on that note, do you believe that a code-switching exists between the more traditional (and almost exclusively white) forms of art you might work from into the art you end up creating as a black Motswana?
I think so. While I wasn’t trained in art history and theory or the Western and European canons I studied up on these things myself out of interest and borrowed elements from them. I even borrow the language used in these arenas and sometimes struggle to explain my work – something I don’t like to do as much as letting people interpret it their own way, but sometimes you have to – to people who don’t have the same interest fine art or who only consider art in terms of realism. But as I said, I also borrow from literature, film and sequential art so I would hope that creates multiple entry points for the Motswana at home who engages with my work. It’s also why I work in figuration and not completely in abstract art, not only because I want to ‘earn’ abstraction at a later stage with my audience, but because the figure is recognizable for my audience which adds further accessibility to the journey I want to take with them.
Currently, some of Thebe’s works can be seen at The Test Kitchen Café, a quaint little café in Broadhurst, Gaborone Botswana. You can also take a look at his brilliant instagram account, @thirdrain_