We spoke to the South African queer illustrator extraordinaire about his multi-cultural upbringing, influences and one-of-a-kind illustrations that address hard-hitting subject matter, spanning the spectrums of race, sexuality and gender identity, with mystical themes and colourful vibrancy.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I am currently 22. I was born to a Zulu mother and Cameroonian father who nurtured my artist’s dreams from a very young age. As a result, I have always been clear about who I am and what I’d like to be, with regards to my skillset, career choice, sexuality and transgender identity. Around grade 10 marked the first time I started doing graphic design for clients, ranging from government to other high schoolers. Starting graphic design and making money from it at such a young age made me enjoy the idea of freelancing, but my African parents were not about to let me do that (laughs). In 2014, I started first year at the Open Window Institute studying visual design and in 2015, I found my true calling when I had to select my preferred majors and electives. I fell in love with Illustration that year and it opened up my eyes to my design potential. In 2016, I left Open Window due to lack of funds. That was also the day I decided to embrace the freelance life I had initially wanted. Attending design school did make some things easier to grasp and I would definitely advise going to a school dedicated to your preferred craft, purely to learn and apply the fundamentals of the field. The choice to freelance is the reason ‘Khanya, The Designer’ , as you know him today, even exists.
‘The choice to freelance is the reason “Khanya, The Designer” as you know him today even exists.’
What did you learn when you were studying graphic design?
I learnt about how art can be applied and the potential that exists in illustrations. I designed everything, mostly using Adobe Illustrator, from stamps, storybooks, plush toys, murals, apparel design to how to draw faster and how to use a wider range of mediums. Although, once I started freelancing, I really started to embrace, explore and draw using Adobe Photoshop as a medium which isn’t something I would say I learnt during my schooling. But it shaped my visual art style to what it is today, no doubt about that.
Growing up, did you have any African creative role models, and if so who?
My aunt, my mother’s youngest sister, was the very first queer woman of colour whom I witnessed explore the arts and do amazingly at it. She would bring back huge paintings with dark narratives and nudity. I’d stare at her artworks as they lay on the dining room table and get lost in the colours and detailing. She also really encouraged me as an artist around that time and would use some of my ‘babydrawing’ techniques in her pieces. My mother was another creative role model. She studied fine art when she was young and was incredible at it, but unfortunately, her parents didn’t encourage her at all. I remember seeing her highly detailed, full-page drawings of my baby hands, feet and eyes. Honestly, my mother is far more talented than me.
How did your unique illustrating style come about?
With regards to the visual execution – the colours I use, shading techniques, effects and overall look of my work – it was intensely influenced by my long-term, serious relationship with pop style and 90s cartoon, as well as using Adobe Photoshop and exploring the effects, brushes, etc. I pretty much never draw on paper, which isn’t great, but damn impressive, if you ask me.
What influences the subject matter that your artwork depicts?
The narratives and stories behind my illustrations have been influenced by my experiences on Earth as Khanya. The experiences within my existence as a young, black, queer transman and my relationship with the lack of representation, and complete erasure, of those like myself in the art scene; my experiences with my blackness and masculinity, my two years of homelessness and my relationship with the Earth, to name a few.
Take us through the process of creating one of your pieces, from inspiration and idea to the Instagram post.
I usually either create a quote or phrase for myself or read through text messages, blogs or articles on specific topics to get the inspiration flowing. Thereafter, it’s a matter of looking at lots, I mean lots and lots, of pictures and videos, ranging from tattoo designs, avant-garde photography, portrait photography, memes; ranging from explicit content to make-up tutorials. Once I have an idea of at least three somewhat correlating artworks (because you can only post three artworks per row on Instagram), it’s a matter of setting up the document on Photoshop. I usually go for an A2 size page, 300dpi and I make the page an off-white colour. From that point, it’s doing the linework, or ‘the skeleton’ of the artwork as I call it. After linework, it’s the base colours for each element, and after the base colours, I add shading and highlights where necessary. After shading and highlights are incorporated, then it’s the final effects, like lens flares, patterns on clothing, piercings, text, tribal paints or any other markings. The final touch is my artist’s tag. It all takes me anything from two-and-a-half to four hours per artwork.
Does social media affect the type of work you create?
It used to. I would make more aesthetically pleasing artworks that always surrounded the trending topics on social media. But that all changed when I started focusing on a specific portion of the population – LGBTQIA+ of colour. From that point on, social media has not had an effect on my artwork or stopped me from being more ‘obscene’ or vulgar. If anything, the only way social media has affected my work is with regards to its reach and the speed with which I work.
Your Instagram says ‘Vulgar, Feminist, Surreal, Unapologetic art’ – could you elaborate on how these words define you as an illustrator?
Vulgarity and nudity have always been the ideal aesthetic to me. Feminist is how I was raised and how I remain living. Surreal is defined as being ‘bizarre’ and I am neither ordinary as an illustrator nor as a person. I have a firm love for being surreal. I’m a very unapologetic, especially when it comes to empowering myself or my group of people. I have no concern as to how people feel about the nudity and the queer content of my artworks. I am very unapologetic about my attempts to represent those who don’t exist in mainstream or ‘underground’ art in a beautiful and empowering way. Living unapologetically does not mean ‘living without shame’, we need shame as it keeps us in line and aware of what is okay and what isn’t. Living unapologetically means ‘living without fear’ and that is the one thing I want to push onto those I represent through Illustration. Sexuality and gender identity are strong themes in several of your artworks.
As a South African queer illustrator, what message do you hope your audience to receive pertaining to these topics?
I’d like my audience to understand that they are deserving. Deserving of being depicted in their natural and beautiful glory. That there is more to them than what the mainstream media will ever say. I’d like to understand their aesthetic and how powerful their narrative is, even on paper. I’d like them to see my efforts in trying to make us and our images familiar, but never basic. I’d like them to see that in order to get things done right, we sometimes have to do it ourselves rather than waiting for the world to grow up and see our magic; that we are here to dominate all spaces from which we have been erased and kept out of for far too long. Our voices are louder than you think.
‘Facing your inner demons and taking control of your happiness and existence as a black queer is not the easiest thing to do and a lot of us are still in the process of doing that. But once you do, despite what people say, you will feel yourself grow a few inches, I swear to the Universe. It’s so liberating.’
What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome to get to a point where you express yourself and your art so freely?
Finding my worth as an artist, as a young artist and as a black LGBTQ artist was the biggest obstacle. I found myself treating myself like the world treated me. I never thought I could be as good as I am now, never thought I’d be celebrated or accepted – it didn’t feel possible. I lived in an odd state of consistent fear, but eventually, I realised that it’s no way to progress. You will never step outside of your comfort zone if you keep telling yourself it’s going be effortless. Admitting to my parents that I was transgender and having them accept me was the biggest breath of fresh air this year (2018). Facing your inner demons and taking control of your happiness and existence as a black queer is not the easiest thing to do and a lot of us are still in the process of doing that. But once you do, despite what people say, you will feel yourself grow a few inches, I swear to the Universe. It’s so liberating. I don’t see myself having any obstacles now unless I make them myself.
What message do you have for other African queer creatives who might fear being ridiculed for expressing themselves as intimately as you do?
The best advice I can give you is: if you are worried about what other people will think about you, then stop thinking about them for a moment and think about you. Your will and worth are stronger than their words. Remember, your comfort zone isn’t the same as your safe zone. Always remain safe because you are the most important figure in this process, but don’t allow yourself to get comfortable with a certain arrangement – ‘get out of your comfort zone’. We are never sure about how people will react to us, so if you are worried, then make sure you are safe if you’re going to take that step of letting people know. But have no fear, show no remorse about telling the art world who you are. You do not and will not (ever!) stand alone.
‘The same goes for the attitude towards woman creatives. Our experience, regardless of the route it takes in our art, whether it’s black queer orientated or black womxn orientated, etc, will always be the black experience. Why? Because we are black and experiencing experiences. It’s that simple.’
What is your opinion of the status quo of the African creative climate, and is there anything that you would like to see changed?
A change in how people police the content black artists can produce is something I would love to see transform. I have had people come up to me and ask me to do art that’s ‘less LGBTQIA+ and POC orientated’ because ‘I would also like to see myself in your art’. I have had a person say my art won’t get far because it’s ‘too obscene’ while looking at an illustration of two masculine bodies making out. I have had white people tell me they want to support me but I am too ‘against white people/heterosexual people’. I have had older male creatives tell me that my art doesn’t speak to the black experience and that I should start producing content that speaks to black people, ‘like taxi ranks, slum areas, men at work, women with their breasts out in traditional attire, you know? Black people things’. It’s wrong on so many levels, I don’t even know where to begin. The policing of queer African and African creative’s content is literal discrimination (literal homophobia and racism). We need to stop being targeted to ‘water down’ or change our content so that it makes those who aim to erase us feel more comfortable and represented and helps them to remain on their pedestals. The same goes for the attitude towards womxn creatives. Our experience, regardless of the route it takes in our art, whether it’s black queer orientated or black womxn orientated, etc, will always be the black experience. Why? Because we are black and experiencing experiences. It’s that simple.
Tell us more about your work as a DJ and the types of music you like to play.
My existence as a DJ (DJ Qing) has been a short one and I really hope it develops into a path I can explore alongside my Illustrator existence. Being multi-dimensional is the ideal form I would like for myself as a creative. It’s mostly centred around hip-hop and rap (old and new). I love watching my queers dance and have fun dancing and a dancefloor full of POC queer bodies in motion is one from the Gods, so I aim to play music that allows that to happen.
What are you working on right now?
I have merch underway and I’m currently working on a mural at Neighbourgoods Market in collaboration with Sunday Edition ZA @sundayeditionza.
Where can people buy your work?
I have taken the firm decision to no longer sell prints and I work on a commission basis. All posted work is solely used to build my portfolio. If prints are sold, there will only be a limited supply and no prints will be redistributed. However, if anyone would like to get hold of me or access my content – follow me on Instagram @khanyathedesigner or email me at email@example.com. Message me with any queries and we can make magic!