Authentic innovation in the African art scene

Authentic innovation in the African art scene
Artist Baba Tjeko believes originality means staying true to oneself and finding a distinctive creative outlet.
 
He’s been a creative soul for as long as he can remember – from cherishing colouring books at crèche to entering (and winning) art competitions at school. 
 
Baba Tjeko believes himself to be a born artist who uses numerous mediums to express himself, communicate, impact or inspire fellow human beings.
 
Like many artists, Tjeko doesn’t like being placed inside the box, but he is mostly known for his visual art talents like drawing, cartooning, painting and communication design. He recently created his own brand of Litema art work – a form of Sotho mural art that features geometric patterns. 
 
Here he combines the traditional with his own innovative style. The results are beautiful Basotho-inspired Litema art, but with a hint of cartoonish chic. The elements that shine through in his work are mostly portraits filled with bold but gentle Basotho patterns.
 
Tjeko was born on 18 October 1985 in Mokwallo, Vredefort in the Free State, but spent most of his childhood in Tumahole Township in Parys where he was raised by his grandmother. He made a name for himself at Barnard Molokoane Comprehensive School in Parys, where praise for his artwork started at a young age.
He describes himself as a sensitive introvert who enjoys solitude as it is a “safe haven where I am able to formulate thoughts, ideas and perspectives that I then apply in trying to have a positive impact on the world.”
Tjeko says he’s not without his weaknesses, “I get overwhelmed by chaos and I’m easily distracted, hence I am constantly changing my mind about plans and ideas”. He is also a “nostalgic being” who yearns for the simple life of years gone by. “This trait has seen me battle with depression from time to time and I use creative expression to deal with the challenge,” he says.
 
Despite his fight with depression, Tjeko says he is also a big dreamer who believes in the potential of mankind, “because each person, whether poor, rich or mentally ill has a role to play in this exciting journey called life.” 
 
Africa is saturated with many different styles of art, ranging from sculptures to weave art. Do you think there is room for innovation and/or creating something new in an already existing art form (for instance, what you create with Litema)?
 
I believe there’s still room for innovation and creating something new, because Africa’s countries, cities, townships and villages have so much to offer in terms of aesthetics, functional art, stories and sustainable ways of doing things. I often joke that poverty did a good job in making us creative and coming up with innovative ways that helped us survive. With what has been offered by our continent so far, this is only the beginning. 
 
There has been a global surge in the “African aesthetic” in terms of art, and there are many young, emerging African artists trying to make a name for themselves. What advice do you have for these artists and what do you think is driving this global surge?
 
I think for far too long, the global art industry has been missing the authentic African voice and that may be due to African culture being portrayed as somewhat inferior. Most Africans come from financially disadvantaged backgrounds, so we always aspired the lifestyle of the Western culture we saw on TV and magazines – that was not authentic. 
 
Today, social media is playing a huge role in allowing people to share their stories and embrace their different backgrounds. We now live in a global village and have to contribute our identity to the art world as honestly as possible. That’s how the world came to open up and embrace the African aesthetic. 
My encouragement to young, emerging African artists is that they should remain true to who they are, because the world is interested in their unique story.
 
You are most well-known for your Litema artworks – can you tell us why it has been important for you to return to this largely forgotten method of working?
 
My work (paintings, illustrations and surface designs) are mostly inspired by Litema patterns, so I do not necessarily reproduce the Litema designs but I integrate them in my work. From a young age, I have always been fascinated by Basotho culture, the language, lifestyle and aesthetics. 
 
Although the Northern Free State is predominantly made of Sesotho speaking, the richness of the language and culture does not compare to that of Lesotho. So I grew up fascinated by stories I read about Lesotho and its culture. 
 
While completing my final year of Advertising Design at the National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa (NEMISA), I chose to focus my final research project on Litema because it is a fascinating art form to me. This has been important, mainly because Litema is sadly disappearing. I integrate the art form’s uniqueness in my work as a way of preserving it and seeking to inspire the younger generation to do the same.
 
Being a full-time artist is not a lucrative business unless you’re extremely well-known in the industry. You recently decided to leave your government job to focus solely on your art, what caused you to make this decision?
 
Art sort of requires one to constantly create and express oneself in an authentic way, so being in an environment that did not allow that was very challenging. I always believed that I have a lot to offer the world and working to earn a salary was not doing justice to that belief, so I had to resign. 
 
I knew that it would be difficult, but I had to follow my conviction and do what will give me peace and fulfilment. Financial returns will come, as long as one is pursuing their dream and seeking to make it happen.
 
You are the creator of a comic strip publication, titled Township Voice, which considers the everyday difficulties faced by township residents in South Africa. Using art as a tool to create awareness around poverty and boost access to information, can you tell us who the readers of Township Voice are, and why you think visual language may better convey these difficulties than any other medium?
 
The majority of township residents are very disadvantaged and do not have formal education, so illiteracy is a major problem that is hampering their development. 
 
I’m currently based in the town of Parys and having worked for the provincial government, I am familiar with the challenges within my home province. 
The readers are the township people in the Free State, but the end goal is to have it reach Lesotho and the Vaal region in Gauteng. That is because Township Voice is 80% produced in Sesotho and 20% English. 
 
I chose to focus on that market because people residing in urban settlements have better knowledge about the world they live in, due to sufficient information produced in the language they understand and at the level that is relevant to them. There are countless newspapers, magazines and books that are produced in English and are distributed in the townships, but a large majority do not read them because they are not produced in the language they understand. 
 
I am a firm believer of “a picture tells a thousand words”, so I believe visual language to be the best medium to convey messages to township people, both illiterate and semi-literate. Again, black people are from the background and culture of ditshomo (folk tales), so communicating to them through comic storytelling is a relevant medium they can easily relate to. Due to financial challenges, Township Voice has since taken a pause.
 
What materials do you mainly work with, and what is your process behind creating your artworks, especially your Litema works?
 
I mainly use pencil to sketch, then black calligraphy pens to finish my line works. For paintings, I mostly use acrylic on canvas or watercolour on paper. For my digital patterns, I draw on Adobe Photoshop using Cintiq 13HD drawing tablet. 
 
I do not want to limit myself as an artist so I am also working on a limited edition of fabric prints and wallpaper designs (inspired by Litema) through Robin Sprong and Fabric Bank.
 
You consider yourself a multidisciplinary artist, working with different mediums and materials. Do you consider this an important trait for emerging artists?
 
It is an important trait, but the key thing is for emerging artists to find their voice and tell their story as authenticly as possible. In that, they will find out if they are comfortable with a single medium of expression, or if like some of us, they are sensitive enough to use multiple mediums to do justice to specific stories. Knowing yourself as an artist is the best way to find creative outlets unique to the message you want to convey.
 
Tjeko is currently freelancing as an illustrator for the Sunday Times newspaper and working as an independent artist. He does illustrations, painting, surface design, product customisation, and visual storytelling through photographs and performance art that incorporates musical poetry and film.