Atang at the Woodstock Studio

We dig into the brain of one of Chclt’s mentors and good friend to the Studio, Atang Tshikare, an artist beyond his years with an absolute passion, strong-willed personality and shows us that confidence in your work can really take you places.
Atang’s father is an artist, illustrator and cartoonist and has just released his first graphic novel about his life as an artist from the 60’s to the early 2000’s. Atang believes his interest in art is an inherent natural ability and added to that, his late mother enrolled him in art school from his first grade, so instead of playing soccer like other kids, he went and did art.

Naturally being creative is my thing, that’s why I can create out of anything. Even in maths class, I wasn’t doing maths; I was drawing numbers but not writing numbers.

He says that even if he wasn’t doing what he is now, he’d still be doing something creative as that is all he loves.

Processes by Atang Tshikare

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a little homeland that was known as Bophuthatswana, independent to the Apartheid government then, so we had different freedoms and I felt as if I didn’t grow up in South Africa. It is now the Free State and at the time we were very privileged as we had an art center, karate and swimming as extra curricular activities..
I moved to Cape Town at the end of 2009 with my wife, who is doing her masters in linguistics, when I got my first 9-5 job at Adidas Originals and quit after two years. I didn’t realise it until someone said to me that I’ve been complaining for six months about being pissed off; only when an external person told me how long it’s been did I decide that I needed to make a move.

Why not do something for myself, cos I know I’ll get fired or I’m going to hate everything around me. So I decided, if tomorrow is my last day on this earth, why not do what I want?

Atang with two of his sculptures that were on display at Southern Guild

Did Adidas start your sneaker obsession?
I started way before. It was 2006 at the time and I had a business that sold South African clothing like Craig Native and the Holmes Brothers, I bought in wholesale and sold in Bloemfontein.
Atang started his collection when he moved to the UK, buying sneakers that one could not find in SA and sourcing them via different categories. He started customising sneakers, selling them at street markets and then moved to Adidas in London for a few months.

“After seeing another country that has so much, Bloem just felt small. I was doing so much, I had the shop, I was a presenter on a university radio station, I did graffiti and I had hip hop events that I hosted with skateboarding, basketball etc. I couldn’t walk down the street without five people knowing who I was; that got to me. I needed a new scene but wanted to stay in the country. I went to Jozi, Pretoria, Durban and then finally settled in Cape Town”.

Wallpaper inspirations by Atang Tshikare

Why not Johannesburg?
Joburg is not for me. It’s all about the hustle, making money and living the fast life but then you don’t have a life cos you’re always chasing. You can do what you want in Cape Town and it becomes a lifestyle, not being flashy and constantly being the guy at the front running.

You should create an environment around yourself that works.

A lot of my business is based in Joburg with commissioned work, where I do the bulk of the work internally then go to Joburg to do the installation; that works better for me.
In Cape Town, I do trail running and live a street away from the ocean; I can cycle at night with a cellphone and laptop on me and I don’t have to think about getting robbed and for me, I’d rather have a life than the money.

Atang with his Father, Mogorosi Motshumi

Are you still into customising sneakers seeing that there’s so much hype around them now?
I’ve moved away from it because most people don’t see it as an art form. They either don’t have the idea or they don’t want to pay what I’m worth and I’ve moved on to so many other forms of art because I’m an evolving artist. I started in 2006; it’s been a decade of customising and I’ve done work for Adidas SA, Puma and a big gallery in New York.

Has travelling changed your art in any way?
Yes and no; it depends on how far it is. I get to see the level of quality on an international scale. I go to international design shows, where I see the best, so you know you must create something on a certain par to qualify. Everything needs to be vetted, so back home I have to keep that quality up. In terms of materials, I should consider what works with the vision and the details; I put a lot of details in my work, so when I do a bronze piece, it’s not just plain bronze, but with patina or it’s highly polished. Certain materials can’t be found in other countries eg. Italy has marble and Russia has diamonds.

What can South Africans use? What do we have? How far can we take design with what we have?

That’s what my next exhibition is about. To show the high standard of what design is with the materials we have here.

Excerpt from Atang’s father’s visual autobiography

So where will you be showing?
It will be at my studio at the Woodstock Foundry, on May 31st. It is a solo show and I
am working with people from Cape Town, Malawi, Congo and Lesotho.
It’s about doing things in a very unorthodox way, because most times you are told you
should only use one material. I’m taking new ways and showing revolution what design
can do because that’s the only way to be able to get progress.

Basically, it’s what you interpret yourself, in terms of what you think is your standard or quality of design or the direction and aesthetic that you pull out and show because everyone has their own opinion on what they think is beautiful. I was part of an exhibition in Amsterdam that came to SA and there was a model that made dolls like Barbie, but she made them with different skin tones. When she did that, she got some criticism but she wanted her daughter to grow up knowing there are different types of people and this is who she is. In the same way, this is what I’m doing with my art.

Atang will be doing a collaboration with his grandmother, who is living back home and they will be working together to create an art piece out of ceramic and plastic tapestry. His grandmother’s been working on the piece for a few months and he will be using the ceramic in a way that the delicate nature of it will become stronger and thereafter, fuse the two.

Atang at the Woodstock Studio

Which pieces are you most proud of?
I looked back on the history of things I had done and I didn’t realise that it had been eight years since being here. I did an illustration of a character named Harry Bananas and it was a story about a character that lived in Cape Town. That’s when I discovered that I could take one pattern and put it onto different things; that is one of the biggest projects that put me onto the national stage of South Africa. Last year I did bronze pieces that I collaborated on with my wife and that went on an international stage in Miami. With each artwork, there is some significance and that’s how I build.

Who is the one person you’d love to work with?
There is someone who’s inspired me recently from Denmark and his name is Olafur Eliasson. Growth for me is number one; he made something that is modern, something that is monumental and he uses smoke and mirrors to materialise his vision. The way he works is what inspires me, more than what it costs or what it’s made from. It also depends on where I am and the timing; it might be someone else next week who’s got something new but it’s about what is current and for me, Olafur is the next .


How do you deal with criticism when it comes to your work?
I put so much energy and thought into my work and if somebody criticises without showing me what’s better, then that doesn’t do anything for me. ‘Oh that’s ugly. Why is it ugly? And if this is ugly, what is beautiful?’ Then you realise that they have a totally different view.
There’s some artwork that I’m selling quite a lot of now that I’ve been making since I started. I got told by some guy that I need to change the way it looks and I told him that I don’t want to change my style. A week after that, I got asked to do a solo show based on that same work and during the show, the owner of a design festival saw me and asked me to be the headline for her next show with that same style. A year later, I got asked to do that same style in Miami and even now, I’m using that style as part of an artwork for an architecture firm.

So for me, it just shows that I know exactly what I want and the only people that have the right to criticise is people that have a) experience or b) they’ve been able to prove that it doesn’t work.

Image by: Andrew Aitchison in Lesotho

I remember one guy who was doing a show called a 250 Show, where you had to submit a small artwork and it was going to be sold for charity. I showed him my work and he said it was not worth R50 and I took it really hard at first. When I went to the show, I saw people doing work that I felt was beneath me and I was like ‘oh, this is how it works. I’m not going to be part of that community’. When I stepped out of trying to be in a community, that’s when I excelled and I became better because I realised that you don’t have to be in the box to make things work. I understood that sometimes you just have to change people’s perceptions.

When you were born, you weren’t born with 20 other people, your mom didn’t sit there for 5 hours like, Tom, Harry, Mary, you know what I mean? You came out into this world yourself, you gotta beat it by yourself. So if you trying to live other people’s lives, what’s the use of breathing and trying to live?

When asked why he thinks so many artists struggle to get their work out internationally, he says: “They can, they don’t believe that their work can be out there. Also, they don’t travel. A lot of people in Cape Town and South Africa in general don’t travel. If you ask anybody if they have a passport, they don’t. It’s not that it’s expensive, it’s just you saying ‘I want to do this’.

People don’t travel inside the continent. People don’t travel outside their neighbourhoods. People don’t travel to places and they just don’t think about it, full stop. It’s one of those things, where you will discover so much every time you leave because you are going to a new place. I’ve been to a place where they don’t know what a black person looks like; I’ve been to a place where they saw dreadlocks for the first time. So when you realise that, you need to take who you are seriously and take it out into the rest of the world. We know what Chinese food is, but we don’t know what Tswana food is and we don’t know what people from Zimbabwe eat.”

Atang at the Woodstock Studio

That is really deep. Your music taste must be very interesting?
I listen to a lot of African jazz. I got some records from Nigeria recently as well as from Mali. I grew up with South African hip hop from the 80’s and have a big collection because I used to sell. Artists like Yang Weapon, Basemental Platform etc. I also like Funk and lots of folk/ traditional African music and Mulatu Astatke, an Ethiopian jazz musician.

Tell us about your latest project.
It is a solo exhibition dedicated to women. Oa mpona is a Tswana and Sotho name that means do you see me. It is dedicated to women because I’ve comprehended that my family is very matriarchal and I’ve learnt a lot of things that shows how important women have been in my life. My wife does my writing for the stories, my mom put me into a technical college before she passed away, bought my first spray cans to do graffiti and took me to art schools. I’m working with women from Lesotho as well, the people that are doing my weaving and the people I buy from. I appreciate it and I don’t take it for granted. On the flip side, a friend of mine found out that a lot of her friends had been raped, then she realised a lot of her friends are rapists and a lot of these things get in your mind.
This will be the first show I’m doing by myself as a designer, without having a gallery or agent etc. involved; the independence involved should be dedicated to women as it all comes together in a circle.