We recently came across the fantastic artwork of Thabang Lehobye on Instagram and we were immediately captivated by his use of colour and texture that really draws you into the scenes he creates. Thabang is an experimental mixed-media artist based in Johannesburg who works predominantly in acrylics and charcoal. He started his formal art practice at The Artists Proof Studio before graduating with a National Diploma in Fine Arts from University of Johannesburg and studying Multimedia at Vega. We had a chat with him to find out all about his inspirations and how it all started...
The Lady in Medallion / Long Walk. Acrylic on canvas.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became an artist?
I have always been a keen observer. Since childhood, I’ve always loved watching people going about their business in the dusty streets of the township. Hours would pass while playing and I would enjoy looking over busy streets as the sun sets — A bus with a destination sign written ‘Johannesburg’ off-loading daily commuters at a busy intersection. Children running towards their moms, dad or neighbors to help them carry groceries, usually with a speck of hope they might be gifted with sweets/goodies in the parcels. ‘Old people seem bring back nice things from this place’ I would think to myself. The place was Johannesburg, we called it Tropong (after Afrikaans term dorp ) . These were simple yet beautiful memories. I was born 1986 in Soweto and raised in Evaton (Vaal) then moved to Orange Farm. I started drawing from as far as I can remember. Watching my brother (Jerry) draw, I would ask for a blank page so I could copy his amazing sketches. When he was not around I’d copy from his
Biology and History text books. Comparing my sketches with drawings from these books was so fulfilling. I wanted to draw more and I never stopped. Later I would be referred by my brother’s friend to the Afrika Cultural Centre in Newtown. A multidisciplinary art center that caters for children in and around the city on Saturdays. This meant finally I would go to the big city every Saturday. This is where my love for Joburg as subject started. In 2003 I joined the Artists Proof Studio (APS), studying drawing and printmaking on weekends while at school. The APS was an amazing place, this is where I saw
possibilities of being an artist. Professional artist such the late, Nhlanhla Xaba, Kim Berman, Stompie Selebe, Lucas Nkgweng, Paul Molete and a lot others would be my mentors. Art as practice was taken seriously here, as opposed to the township where I came from. The city represented so much opportunity.
I then received various patronage and sponsorships to further my studies at University of Johannesburg, graduating with a Degree in Fine Arts. I later studied Multimedia at Vega School with the help from the artist William Kentridge, this was as part of professional development and to branch off to advertising. It was a difficult move. Pressure at home was mounting to finally make a living. I felt deep, the disappointment from all people who had
supported my development to be an artist. It made sense for me though to do design while practicing art. I love design, but I had underestimated requirements of the job. It was difficult to balance out the two, yet I knew at some stage I would gradually start producing artworks more rapidly and ultimately be a full-time practicing artist.
Moon / Changing Seasons. Acrylic on board.
What is the creative process like for you - how does your work come to life?
Process for me is to try as much as possible not to have a process. This is where the fun is and of course the frustrations. A lot of things come to mind when one thinks of process. I try not follow a linear path. I try to just go with the flow, learning by trial and error. I find that following a routine becomes boring, suddenly doing art starts feeling like doing chores. It’s always nice to come up with something new, but I think it is important not to think of process as steps. Going out on the streets take pictures for a composition, arranging pictures and trying to make sense of the message they might be conveying, images talk
back. There’s always a story behind every corner of Jozi street. Putting these compositions together is like unveiling layers of meaning. I think it’s because these spaces mean so many different things to different people.
Is there a particular message that you hope to convey through your artwork?
I see my work as an ongoing series, exploring Joburg’s inner city inhabitants and the city itself as subject. The idea of a physical space being passed over different generations of migrants, almost like the Hillbrow Tower being past as a baton. That itself speaks of the diversity which makes Joburg such a unique place. A constant architectural cityscape frozen in time, and its ever-changing migrant population. I attempt to captured the brightness of day by using contrasting hues to emphazise the sunny-ness of day one would find on a typical Joburg summer day. The low angle perspective approach is meant to almost lure the viewer in, to walk the streets. This is further emphasized by scale, going larger and larger. I want viewer to become the story, to
step in to the space. The city means different things to so many people; The migrant story, the bustling city, a place come make it big. We all have our unique stories. The magic happens when a particular piece sparks memory of a place or time, this is when the work speaks to viewer and the viewer responds.
The work intends to challenge the viewer to step in further. The composition is open, a portal into the city itself. Joburg has a sense of magnetism, it lures you in. People vanish, get lost and find themselves. Sometimes they don’t. The work invites you in, you step in, become part of the subject.
Summer Storms on the Highveld. Acrylic on board.
A lot of your work focuses on Johannesburg, what is it about the city that makes you want to capture it?
My curiosity about the city came at an early age. That Bus with a sign on top reading‘Johanneburg’ off-loading commuters in the township — Everyone seem to bring something nice from the big city. My mother would bring me to town once in a while for Christmas shopping. this was so exciting I would not sleep a night before. I think a lot about why I chose Joburg as subject, it’s a lot of things. It can never be one. The city offers so many possibilities in terms of subject and figuratively. You feel like I can do anything here, perhaps it’s the energy one feels when you haven’t been around in a while. It just draws you in.
What has been the proudest moment for you throughout your art career?
Having William Kentridge acknowledge my work and inviting me at his home studio for the first time and winning my first Loeries Award for my first short film ‘Inside the Box’ as a student. These moments were magic!
We love your recent moving image pieces, do you enjoy experimenting with work like this?
I love trying out new things and experimenting, Maybe it’s because I get bored so quickly. Joburg offers me with so much subject matter, it is hard to get bored. Playing with moving images balances this out in a lot of ways. The reward of seeing something come to live in video keep me pushing to produce more; and the ability introduce a more linear storytelling through a time based medium is exciting.
Looking Up The Jewel. Acrylic on board
How has the pandemic affected the work you are making?
The pandemic represents a defining moment for me in terms of charging towards being a full-time artist. A moment of clarity and a time for reflecting on my chosen path. It will always remind me of a time I made a decision that I am an artist more than all else, an opportunity in time of a global pandemic.
Time of lockdown has given me enough time to produce and promote work on social platforms. A lot of time to experiment more and think of my own story to tell. The pandemic has also affected my work positively, I’m able to balance work as a designer at FCB and my love for art. There has been talks about a new way of working into the future. I’m fortunate to work with a group talented individuals at the agency, most of whom are also pushing their creative side hustles such as music, photography, creative writing, etc. This maybe a perfect time to relook the way we balance our work, while drawing inspiration
from things closer to our hearts.
What is your hope for the future of your career?
I’m excited about the future, but I feel it is as important to enjoy the journey. Mine is a human story in familiar spaces, I hope to share this story with the world. The sky is the limit.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you are particularly excited about?
I’m looking forward to a couple of projects and including a solo show for my 2021 series later in the year, Completing animated short for the song ‘Stimela’ by the late legendary Hugh Masekela and a collaborative project with an eminent local musician whom I will not mention.
Do you have any advice for young creatives?
No matter where you are in your journey, never stop! It is about enjoying the process more than anything else. I read this somewhere, can’t remember the source “One should be like an arrow charging towards a target, while enjoying the journey”
Are people able to purchase your artwork?
My work is currently available via the gallery Denzel and Jo’s in Melville. I’m working on the 2021 series for later in the year, I believe it is worth the wait. More information will follow as we go.
A huge thank you to Thabang for taking the time to chat with us. We are constantly inspired by his beautiful artwork, we highly recommend you follow Thabang over on Instagram here.