Prolific, prodigious, but never pop: Inside the mind of Cape Town designer Atang Tshikare

Atang Tshikare
Atang Tshikare at home in his studio. Photo: YouTube

The mind of self-taught Cape Town designer Atang Tshikare fizzles with ideas. But he’s always focused on one thing: telling positive stories about Africa.

Among the old textile factories of Cape Town’s rapidly gentrifying Woodstock, one building on Albert Road stands out. Across its black brick wall sprawls a rainbow-coloured Op Art mural, clinging to the side of the building like a huge cluster of diamonds refracting the light. By the Spanish artist Okuda, it symbolises a cluster of another kind: the 30 or so artists’ spaces that make up Side Street Studios. This is where surface designer and visual creative Atang Tshikare has his studio and runs his business, Zabalazaa Designs.

The child of an artistic father and entrepreneurial mother, Tshikare grew up in Bloemfontein as a comic book obsessive, moving on to graffiti as soon as he could get his hands on a spray can. It was during two years in the UK, from 2006 to 2008, that he really got into the street art scene. While there he started collecting customised sneakers, and on moving back to South Africa decided to turn his love for sneakers into a career, customising his own instead of buying them from overseas. Prolifically creative, he didn’t stop there, but moved on to designing furniture, bicycles, postcards, bags, wallets and skateboards … a list that continues to grow with each day in the studio.

Design Indaba 2012 was a turning point for Tshikare. After being invited to take part in the Cape Town design expo as one of 40 ‘emerging creatives’, his brand, Zabalazaa Designs, took off. He now employs five people, has exhibited in Dubai and Germany and has won several design and innovation awards.

Navigating Tshikare’s studio is quite a challenge. It displays the kind of organised chaos that is best understood by someone who spends most of his days and nights there. There is a green bicycle standing upside down in the middle of the room. A colourful self-portrait sits above his desk. The walls and floors are covered in sketches, artwork, prototypes.
Despite the apparent disorder, Tshikare is focused on what he wants to say, both verbally and through his designs: “I want to talk positivity. That amid all of this [wars, coups] black people are doing things – whether it’s running small businesses or raising families – and they are not waiting for the rest of the world to affirm them.”

Beyond survival

One of the benefits of working in an area like Woodstock is being part of a vibrant creative community, Tshikare says. He is able to find material for his designs with ease, as well as people to collaborate with within walking distance. As a self-taught artist he is continually pushing himself to try out new mediums: “I don’t have preconceived ideas of what the method is so I experiment more, collaborate often and work harder to reach higher.”
He feels fortunate to be able to live from creativity, as well as helping to train the next generation of designers: “I’m one of the few lucky people, I’m just beyond survival mode using my own wits. As an artist you are a risk manager convincing people to buy into a product that most consider a luxury and many artists are not equipped on how to manage this.”

Given the comic book, skater and street art origins of his work, some might be tempted to call it Pop Art. But Tshikare is adamant in drawing a line: “I don’t believe in Pop Art because I don’t think it comes from the heart; it’s popular, and easy to love. But African art is about storytelling, it’s beautiful art that has an origin. It is saying to the world: ‘This is who we are’. As an African I believe art should reflect issues society needs to know about.” This idea of storytelling unites the vast array of different objects he has designed: “African art is something that flows naturally through me, I don’t even need to think about it. For me, it’s a narrative and has to tell a story.”

Tshikare plans to take this African story to Europe and the US: “In the SA design world I feel like I’m sailing on a new ship that has not been used to its full potential and has lots of room to try new ideas that express the design language of this country,” he says.
When it comes to developing naturally talented designers, however, Tshikare feels South Africa is still some way off: “There is a lot bubbling from the underground and we need more institutions to take a different approach to unearth these talents […]. We have a voice but we still need to know how to express ourselves with it. In design we trust.”

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