T.S Abe: Photorealism, Animated Portraiture and Imitated Memories
In the fourth part of our continuing series on artists in diaspora who promote Black identity and pride through their work, we present British illustrator, T.S Abe.
Born in 1989 in Brixton, London, TS Abe is an illustrator known for her animated drawings. A graduate of Central Saint Martins University of the Arts, Abe’s drawings have appeared on several platforms, from album covers to exhibition walls and London buses. In this interview with Omenka, she discusses her work and identity.
At a glance, your name seems like a literary pseudonym. Please tell us how you came by it. In the early 2000s, adopting irreverent digital usernames was less unusual than it is now. I cycled through a few, bastardizing the names of various literary characters. TS Abe stuck.
You completed a foundation course at Central Saint Martins. How has your art evolved since then and how influential has your academic training been on your personal style?
Well, I’ve moved about an inch from traditional portraiture over into animated portraiture! The foundation course itself was a year long, and I had a sparse attendance record. Having taught myself everything I knew technically, I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the prospect of more self-directed study. Central Saint Martins is a magical, remarkable institution—my head was just somewhere else. The prior two years I spent studying philosophy, politics, and art at the A level were more formative.
You describe yourself as South African and Scottish. What role does cultural hybridity play in your work?
All the identities that I felt stretched me beyond the borders of England, into South Africa and Scotland regarding heritage, and into the rest of Europe and America in my working life, have contracted sharply of late. The looming combustion of my ability to live and work in the 27 other EU countries (as all my three siblings have done) has brought into sharp relief the precarity of having a career built entirely on a North American income. Finding myself just as anchored as my rural neighbours despite having these cultural passports has been a nasty—perhaps needed—shock. What this means for my work, I really couldn’t say.
In terms of process, how would you describe your relationship to the medium of drawing?
I’m always looking for a new technical challenge. Take the transition from photorealism to animated portraiture. Animating the drawings (like adding the surreal elements in earlier works) is a way of subverting the photorealistic practice to reveal the human hand again. A good animated portrait feels like a glimpse into infinity, imitating memories and imprinting on the mind like melody. It’s that window into a suspended reality that I’m currently totally and utterly obsessed with.
Your works appear to be a mix of very graphically detailed moving portraits, figures, and more abstract patterns. In your opinion, what is the intersection between art, illustration, design, and animation?
That would be the individual, right? Having not really studied the above disciplines beyond a high school level, I’m pretty cavalier in my approach to mixing disciplines. And I’m not overly concerned about the right and wrong way to do things.
At what point in your career did you realise it was important to project the Black race positively, and was this decision informed by personal history?
Choices I made were reflected back to me with value attached. So it was a decision informed by capitalism, really. A couple of examples: I always have pet projects on the go. Whilst these are fun, they can be a little vapid. In order to feel a little more justified in simply drawing things I like to draw, I often add a small curatorial criteria. It’s Your Boy was a series of fashion sketches in 2014 that only included brands that had Black, brown, or Asian men on the catwalk that week. I actually made an exception for one particular brand that had an all-white catwalk. Incidentally, they were embroiled in multiple racist rows as early as last year. Quelle surprise! That series got me my first commission with Nike.
Similarly, #sketchingseason, an Instagram project that was not really much more than me sketching beautiful faces and filming the process, was successful because it predominantly featured women of colour, not in spite of it. There is a huge appetite for re-imaginings of our faces, figures, and aesthetics across the media landscape. I’m hoping that with so many avenues for self-publishing and production, this particular wave of interest and opportunity will outlast the whims of cultural gatekeepers.
Do you randomly select your sitters, or are they well known to you? What traits interest you the most?
The only person I can tolerate sitting for me is me.
You often appear in your paintings. What message or personal experience are you trying to convey?
Autobiographical reconstruction, mostly. Even the bad is good in the right frame. I took up self-portraiture when puberty hit, probably an attempt to claw back some control over my image and identity. The habit stuck, and making art has remained a solitary pursuit in that sense. Lately, I’m more aware of those reconstructive urges, and feel in kin with everyone—women in particular—desperately remaking themselves online. If humans are only ever having conversations with themselves, then self-portraiture is as short a distance between those points as you’re going to find.
You portray yourself as a queen with a fierce gaze in Solmi. Please tell us the inspiration behind it.
In the portrait, I actually appear as the wall-mounted hunting trophy of my own mind. The headdress does denote power, but on closer inspection, it reveals itself to be a catalogue of commodities, from clocks and lipsticks to bullets and hair clips rotating like unwanted thoughts. Figures relegated to structural ornaments with only sprawling abstractions left to articulate the puzzle of human volition is a theme that ran heavily through my earlier work.
It’s worth noting that the portrait is a decade old—I was 19 (now 29). I’d never had a job and never paid a bill, and I had a keen nervousness about developing a more materialist identity, which I mulled over with daily Starbucks coffee. Pragmatism was not my strong point, and aspects of the adult world I’d previously despised were beginning to look pretty damn seductive.
You have worked with many known brands, including Nike, Gucci, Netflix, Amazon, and the Smithsonian Magazine. To what would you attribute your success, and what should emerging artists do to imitate you?
Follow your curiosity, and then get lucky. My first animated portrait went viral in 2014, leading to commissions from the New York Times and Amazon. But I’d sat on the idea for a couple of years, because I thought there was no money in it, that I needed to think commercially to make a living from my art. Once I decided to just make whatever the hell I liked again, it transformed my career.
I’ve also been drawing for my Instagram audience for the last six years, unpacking my process, pumping out sketching videos and impulsive projects. I gave away a drawing a day for a month in 2015, which in hindsight was probably the only fun I had that year.
The work has been exhausting but rewarding. I could not have conceived of an audience for my work as large as it has become. It’s been both thrilling and anxiety-inducing. I take regular social media breaks for my sanity. If I had been preoccupied with immediately monetizing that digital space, or determined to only exist within the gallery system and not as a hybrid artist, influencer, and illustrator, my career just wouldn’t exist.
It’s also worthwhile to get your work on a free professional platform like Behance. They have championed creatives for over a decade, and the vast majority of new clients still discover me there. If you are a little younger, I’d recommend DeviantArt. It was my digital stomping grounds as a teenager, and my work developed significantly for being nurtured and encouraged within that community.
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