With the use of simple lines, illustrator Tebogo Cranwell creates Black feminine bodies concisely, intimately and above all distinguishably. Kinks, curves and hoops come together to form outlines of women who could be more kin than caricature. Spurred on by a curiosity and wonder about not only her own capabilities, but those of her chosen mediums, Cranwell explores her craft as a solo artist and also as one half of visual artists collective The Black Tip Crew.
I spoke with her about her upcoming exhibition at South Africa’s 2020 RMB Turbine Fair, working with Grammy Award winning songwriter Tiara Thomas, her creative aspirations and also reeled in Karabo Maine (the other half of Black Tip Crew) to discuss their future and life after losing their third member, Leungo “Chopps” Tumedi.
While many depictions, illustrations and artistic approaches to “Black is beautiful” tend to be contrived and archaic – most glaring in photography with “Black beauty” showcased as oiled up bodies – your work stands as a literal approach to exploring Black(ness) and beauty that’s executed meticulously by capturing intimacy. Has this always been your illustration style?
Tebogo Cranwell: My style hasn’t always been my style. I think it keeps changing and evolving. I try to experiment and play with new techniques and materials, but I’ve always stuck to black ink on a white surface. There is something so simple and so beautiful about how black and white interact, complement and oppose each other.
Have your depictions and your direction changed over time?
TC: I used to believe that having a lot of visual information in my artwork will help tell my story better and that the more impressions I made on the paper or canvas, the better the quality of my work. I can’t remember what I got frustrated with, but I started challenging myself to see what would happen if I used less. I started stripping away different elements, little by little, to investigate the kind of effect their absence would create, and I loved the result. It helped me think about my work in a different way. I started weighing and prioritizing what I considered important to the piece. I used that as the focus and got rid of the rest. Those experiments helped me appreciate the power of negative space and to regard it as just as powerful a tool of communication as positive space. I’ve grown to use it to frame, define, introduce and explore tension, because a lot of the time, that’s where the action happens, in the ‘empty’ space. I have grown to appreciate this level of minimalism. It has given me the confidence to be content with being subtle and conservative in my delivery, and to harness the power of suggestion.
How does gender play out in your work?
TC: My obsession with femininity feels natural. I am a woman and I think we are beautiful. I just want to shout it out loud. I like to play with the irony of using the most distinct and dramatic contrast, by choosing the colours that are on complete ends of the spectrum, and bringing attention to something a little more smooth and fluid; sometimes that jumping between, and negotiating those opposites feels like the duality of femininity.
How did your collaboration(s) with Tiara Thomas come about?
TC: A big fat shout out to perfect timing, my phone and the power of the internet! I’m a big fan of her music and I decided to use her picture as the subject of one of my 2017 Inktober drawings, which I used to explore hair. I post most of my work on Instagram and I tagged her just to see if she’d respond, and she did! She was working on a new project and felt like my style would complement the kind of music she was making – a collection of stripped down, acoustic songs – so she asked me to help.
What’s your biggest take away from that interaction?
TC: It feels really good when someone whose work I admire feels the same way about mine. Working with her, refining the design until we got to a place where we were both happy with it and finally showing it to the world felt like a mutual declaration of dopeness. It also confirmed for me that the internet has forever changed the way we consume art. Our work is far more accessible and visible to all kinds of people all over the world and having a universal audience means there is more potential for collaboration and growth. I’m really proud of the artwork I did on both Tiara Thomas’s EP FWMM and her album Don’t Mention My Name.
Who do you consider to be your top three artistic inspirations and what is it about their approach that you appreciate the most?
TC: Yikes, three is so difficult. In no particular order, Beyoncé, because she is an all-round bad ass. She works really hard and has mastered her crafts; singing, dancing, and just having great taste. She just gets better and better. I really appreciate that as a dabbler. I try and dip my fingers in many different pots so I can try to figure out what makes things tick. Then, artist and animator Xaviera Lopez. She creates these beautiful psychedelic, smooth animations. I feel like there are interesting things you can say with motion that static imagery sometimes doesn’t allow. I want to learn and master how to speak different artistic languages so I can add different elements to my work to help me communicate better. Also photographer Zanele Muholi, who creates these striking, powerful statements on the black female body. She says so much with each picture and I want to be able to use my art as articulately as she does.
We’re at the one-year anniversary of your exhibition with Black Tip Crew at The Octagon Gallery at the Botswana National Museum. Let’s talk about the collective. How was it formed?
TC: Karabo Maine, Leungo Chopps Tumedi and I had been friends long before we decided to join forces. We had spoken about it a few times over drinks and it felt natural because we all loved drawing, we had great chemistry, we loved and respected each other’s work and the common element in our approach towards our art was that we all loved using black ink.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to work on a lot of projects as a trio, Chopps passed away in 2018 and that was heartbreaking. We had started talks with Bullsheep Creative Studios, our management team, to put together a body of work that would ‘officially’ introduce The Black Tip Crew to the local art scene.
Karabo and I are holding down the fort, and we used the 2019 Exhibition as an opportunity to introduce who we are as individuals. The plan is to continue the discussion where the three of us left it and put together a show that will profile us as a unit.
How is the plan going so far?
TC: The journey has been interesting because it’s taught us both the power of collaboration which is always a lesson in compromise; how to combine the best parts of our ideas. It’s a lot of experimenting, trial and error and negotiation, but the process is always fulfilling because we end up exchanging secret recipes and discovering amazing things about our art and what our plans are for the future.
Karabo Maine: When The Black Tip Crew was formed in 2017, having that kind of dynamic – three egos working together – was great because we were able to bounce ideas off each other, argue, make comprises, and be open to fucking up together, which I felt was a key part of us growing as visual artists. A lot of the time, artists tend to work in isolation and that’s when crippling self-doubt creeps in. Sometimes it’s hard to just get started because you’ve justified so many reasons your work isn’t good enough. Being part of a community that backs you and challenges you is important to overcome that.
What else made things gel so well?
KM: We each had our own distinct styles when it came to illustration but what really tied the aesthetics together was the use of black ink, specifically from felt tip fine liners. At that time, I actively avoided using colour. The three of us went on to do commission work for Botswana based publications and live drawings at parties and events. Those are always good experiences as there is a performative aspect, it’s exciting and challenging, as a lot of the time you can make mistakes in front of people and the plan may not go accordingly but you move on and enjoy the process of drawing.
When our friend Chopps, passed away in 2018, this tore a massive hole in us as a collective and as close friends. The trauma of losing Chopps was something that we never thought we would experience. As a constant consumer of popular culture, he was our strongest metric for all things cool and tasteful. A fixed point, a lighthouse for the aesthetically sound. We miss him every day.
How has this affected the essence of the collective since Chopps passed?
KM: With the collective down to two people, we worked in earnest towards a group show at the National Gallery as an introduction to our small group. The work wouldn’t be tied together by one overriding theme, but by our minimalist colour pallet, black on white and vice versa. The exhibition was funded by Bullsheep Studios and with their guidance we were able to be visible and contribute to our country’s visual lexicon. Painting and sculpture take up a very high position of power when it comes to how art is perceived here in Botswana. They have scale and presence whereas our work occupies more of a subdued space. It was important that our work was presented within the framework of a traditional gallery system. Our drawings would hold weight and have a voice in that 8-sided space.
The journey so far has been humbling. I continuously try to keep my ego on a short leash, and work towards finding middle ground and understanding with Tebogo. No matter how good or cool my idea is, there’s another set of eyes with a fresh perspective. With that fresh perspective comes confidence. Confidence in the fact that I’m not working alone. That again, I’m part of a tribe I can trust.
Does the future seem bright or …
KM: More and more I’m leaning towards the side of optimism, in regard to our future as a collective. The optimism is necessary, especially when considering the current tragedy that is the COVID-19 pandemic. People are turning to artists as they consume film, literature, music and visual arts in their homes, as a way of escape. I sincerely believe as artists it is our undertaking to make people ask all kinds of questions – and to escape. I think it’s safe to say, we as The Black Tip Crew are definitely eager to challenge our ways of making and seeing art, through engaging with physically larger illustrations, and working with different mediums. The plan is to create a solid public mural body of work here in Botswana and then move on to opportunities internationally. I think since its inception, the group has always been attracted to murals, the making of murals and public art. Through these diverse art forms, we hope to say something. For ourselves, for other people, or just try and enhance a space as best we can, working with the community as visual artists. It’s in these ways that we want to contribute to our cultural history and collective memory.
What’s your wildest or grandest creative aspiration for your work?
TC: I would love to see my work displayed at MOMA, on the cover of Time magazine and the Economist. I would also like my work to shine a light on Botswana’s growing contemporary art space and ultimately, I would love for us to be included in the bigger conversation surrounding African and global art.
You’ve been selected to showcase at the 2020 RMB Turbine Fair in South Africa. What can people expect from your exhibition?
TC: I am so excited for that. Another big shout out to OraLoapi my management, for kicking down doors. I’m bringing the African woman in all her glory. We’ve selected a few pieces, but my main concern right now is scale. I’m working on expanding my artworks to produce bigger pieces, which is a challenge because I am used to experiencing my art in very specific proportions. Blowing up scale means occupying more space, I’m also considering different textures to add another dimension and I am excited to see my work like that.
How has adjusting to COVID circumstances been for you?
TC: It has been really awkward. I find it difficult to concentrate on anything for more than 15 minutes because there is so much information to process and my brain constantly has a million tabs open.
I use my art to meditate. Every time I sit down to draw it helps me shut out the world and really focus on what I’m doing. It was worse in the beginning because I worked myself into a tight knot by trying to force myself to work because “the world literally stopped Tebogo, you will never get an opportunity like this again”. I have to remind myself to stop being so dramatic and to be kinder to myself. I’ve done a few pieces, and I’ve got so many ideas in my head. Once things get a little easier, my first stop is the art supplies shop to get some materials I can use to release this energy.