INTERVIEWED BY Mary Garner
Born to British and South African parents, illustrator T.S Abe has a flair for creating hyper-realistic portraits. This compelling artist, who has done work for brands like Nike, Gucci, Netflix and The New York Times, chats to VISI about growing up in Brixton in the UK, her love of GIFs and the moment she realised that drawing for a living was achievable.
How did growing up in Brixton affect how you approach your work?
Growing up in the heart of Black Britain, attending the top high school in the borough (that was also girls only and 98% black), not to mention having a mother who ensured we were well versed in British and South African political history (my brothers, for example, are named Samora and Bereng after Samora Machel and Prince Seeiso) incubated me from the overt racism and cultural isolation that I know a lot of my black and mixed peers living in the suburbs suffered. I do think my work was freer and more expansive as a result.
Where did you study?
I did a foundation course in Art & Design at Central Saint Martins with a view to pursuing my degree in Fine Art there, but I really didn’t feel I was learning enough to justify the expense of a degree, so I didn’t!
What motivated you to create the self-portrait GIF series? How would you describe your mindset while working on these illustrations?
I’ve been making self-portraits for about 12 years. For me, animating my portraits injects a sense of fun and wonder back into the process. Once I’d mastered a way of producing my own realistic drawings, they just felt a bit “paint by numbers”. Animating the drawings, like adding surreal elements in earlier works, is another way of subverting the photorealistic practice and revealing the human hand again. Film is a major influence – I’m obsessed with Tarantino and Studio Ghibli GIFs, the moodiness of Wong Kar-wai masterpieces and, of course, sci-fi treasures like The Fifth Element and The Matrix.
How long does it take to create each one?
Ideas sit in the back of my head for years and when I can’t avoid them any longer I make an attempt to get them on paper. The process will then run over a few weeks, from shooting footage to browsing my research folders filled with images from The British Museum & Sotheby’s, for objects or motifs to mould the work. Then it’s on to hand-drawing the frames and finally stitching them together again, digitally.
Which was the first big brand job you completed that impacted your artworks on a personal level?
I covered a London bus for TFL (Transport for London) in my self-portraits at 16. It featured me pointing to the Hobo Sign – these were signs the hobo community used to evade police detection. Alongside a somewhat cliched oil-drenched peace symbol and a giant roving eye, that translated as “Look out! The authorities are on the watch”. It was a public commentary on Britain’s early 2000s surveillance atmosphere and foreign policy, vis-à-vis the Iraq war and the Iran nuclear deal. Seeing my work outside of my bedroom on a large scale for the first time was unforgettable. I got an inkling that drawing for a living wasn’t as preposterous as I had thought.
Do you have new projects that you’re currently working on?
I’m in the early stages of developing book volumes of both my self-portraits and travel sketches.