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Oil paints and online audiences: The paintings of Thabang Lehobye

By David Mann

It’s late January, and on a bright Saturday morning in the Johannesburg CBD, an artist sets up his easel, and paints. Situated at the intersection of Helen Joseph and Joubert Street, he is painting what he sees – the clusters of shops and fast-food outlets, the cars, the people, the buildings of the inner-city, one of them with a large mural of the South African flag wrapping around its façade. The painter is Thabang Lehobye, an artist who’s rapidly gaining attention online and in the smaller gallery circuits through his striking and emotive scenes of Johannesburg city.

  • Thabang Lehobye
  • Thabang Lehobye Joburg city art
  • Thabang Lehobye Joburg city art
  • Thabang Lehobye Joburg city art
  • Thabang Lehobye Joburg city art
  • Thabang Lehobye Joburg city art
  • Thabang Lehobye Joburg city art
  • Thabang Lehobye Joburg city art
  • Thabang Lehobye Joburg city art
  • Thabang Lehobye Joburg city art
  • Thabang Lehobye Joburg city art
  • Thabang Lehobye Joburg city art

Journeying into art

A Soweto-born artist raised in Evaton, Vaal, and Orange Farm, Lehobye works primarily with oils, experimenting with works on canvas and in short-form film and animation. Back in 2003, when he first started experimenting with artmaking by visiting the Artist Proof Studio (APS) as a high school student and attending Saturday art lessons at the then Afrika Cultural Centre in Newtown, Lehobye was primarily working with drawing.
     ‘My most vivid memories of my childhood are of drawing or making miniature towns with found objects,’ explains Lehobye over email. ‘It felt like I had something to hold on to as a child. I think it was where I felt in control without judgement, where I most found joy.’
     Trips from the Vaal into Johannesburg to visit APS and experience the city were expanding Lehobye’s views. He was starting to paint, and was falling in love with Joburg, which felt to him like ‘the bigger world’.
     ‘I later joined APS for drawing and printmaking. This is when I got lessons from amazing people such as Kim Berman, Nhlanhla Xaba, Lucas Nkgweng, Stompie Selebi, and many others,’ he says. ‘They exposed me to greats such as Dumile Feni, Gerard Sekoto, and a lot of others. It was amazing seeing works by major artists being worked on. The heroes were not so far away. I wanted to stand on these shoulders, the energy was just incredible! The dream was possible.’

Carving out a space between art and design

Thabang Lehobye

Funding by way of APS saw him studying art further at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), and it was here where he became interested in the works of William Kentridge, someone who’d later give patronage to Lehobye’s practice and allow him to pursue another degree after UJ. As the pressures of making a living as an artist post-graduation were fast-approaching, and Lehobye didn’t want to play into the narrative of ‘the struggling artist’, these post-graduate studies led him to the Vega School of Brand Communication. A long-term project of his subsequently picked up a gold Loeries Award in the student category and work at local ad agencies soon followed.
     ‘I’ve been working as a designer for more than 12 years at various ad-agencies, this has been while keeping an eye on the art world and doing art as much as I can,’ explains Lehobye. ‘It hasn’t been easy from the artistic side, yet I’m starting to find a footing. Time is of the essence and maintaining a good balance is key. I think lines [between art and design] will become even more blurry as we progress into the new world.’

Painting in the digital age

These days, Lehobye’s striking scenes of the city and the people who animate it are gaining a significant amount of attention from galleries, agencies, and art-lovers alike. Working as an independent artist without full-time gallery representation means Lehobye hustles to get his work out on his own terms. As such, Instagram has proved to be a useful tool for the painter. At the time of writing, Lehobye’s Instagram has over 11k followers, and his posts – usually close-ups of his works in-progress and of his completed works – regularly garner an excess of 1000 likes per post. These are hardly the important figures, though. The majority of Lehobye’s sales are conducted through his account via Direct Message, where potential buyers flock. 

‘The world is more connected, access to information is virtually free. People’s taste in everything, including art, is what matters. Not a network of galleries,’ says Lehobye. ‘Galleries will have to catch up, they still play a major role in being physical platforms for exchange, but definitely not king makers – this will sit with audiences online. Most of my clients I haven’t met, but request for inclusion in the mailing lists is growing each day. E-commerce and logistic systems are a lot more efficient. This helps a lot in making good sales on my part.’

But Lehobye is not strictly an ‘Instagram artist’. A recent collaboration with Hemisphere Fine Art’s Le Fournil de Plett saw the artist exhibiting his works for sale in the Plettenberg Bay-based bakery and café in late 2020. The combination of a high tourist presence in the town, and Lehobye’s own internet presence is what he says led to an impressive amount of sales.

‘The show at Le Fournil opened in the most challenging times,’ he says. ‘An influx of tourists to the small town was down like never before. Hemisphere was faced with a difficult decision. They decided to proceed. This was the best decision and the show is doing very well in terms of sales. We have decided to extend the show to March for remaining works.’

Soon, Lehobye hopes to streamline his online sales, building up a more permanent virtual space for his growing body of work. In a recent interview with The Daily Maverick, the artists explains, ‘The next step would be to incorporate e-commerce into the website, I’m working on a virtual gallery. And in the near future, a studio live-feed.’

Painting perspectives of the city

Lehobye’s paintings feature full, lively cityscapes, peppered with moments of conventional beauty and lightness. A shrewd interplay between activity and stillness, and the frequent use of a vanishing point that leads the viewer’s eye down a busy city street, or up towards the rooftops of buildings, makes for paintings that are wholly immersive. Then there are the tranquil, leafy scenes he’s zoned in on – bucolic settings that both compliment and contrast his cityscapes. All this considered, does Lehobye see himself as a contemporary landscape painter?

‘Lifetime experiences and the need to voice an opinion exceeds a singular category,’ says the artist. ‘I see the work as an introduction into the space, into a way of seeing the world. I attempt to do this by inviting the viewer through conventional ways to lure them into the spaces. This is amplified by the use of devices such as perspective and light. I’m bringing the viewer into the work, they become the subject in that space. In a way, the space doesn’t exist when they are not there. It becomes a conversation. The work offers the space for their imagination to walk the streets – some see familiar things, others don’t. They walk on the fields and sense a slight breeze of the blue shadow on a sunny day. Sometimes I feel it’s unnecessary to overload work with meaning. Other times I do so like I’m screaming to voice out an opinion about something.’

Thabang Lehobye

Bringing paintings to life

Charcoal, oils, and animation are all formats that Lehobye works within. For the latter, the artist primarily works with oil paints, using a process of erasure to bring his paintings to life through film. In this way, Lehobye is greatly inspired by the films of his former patron, Kentridge, who has a long history of drawing and erasing in charcoal to produce his film works. How does the use of oils differ to the use of charcoal?
     ‘Painting allows me to introduce more colour,’ he says of the process. ‘I paint on hard board, acetate and Perspex sheet, allowing me to build each frame in layers. Paint is also easier to remove on perspex and acetate, this gives me more time to paint more frames. I can also choose to use acrylics which dry quickly therefore allowing me to work on layers and create textures.’

A growing oeuvre

For all of Lehobye’s processes and perspectives, as well as the increasing demand for his work, both on and offline, the artist maintains that the work he produces is constantly in progress, forming part of a growing and developing body of work.

‘I consider these as early stages of my development,’ he says. ‘Perhaps the viewer might be introduced to more people’s stories, my story. I think this is a catalogue of a lifetime, the meaning will find its way as we look in retrospect.’

Find more of Lehobye’s work on his Instagram.

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