In conversation with Nambowa Malua, a Namibian digital artist who uses his drawing tablet and computer screen to create vibrant, figurative digital ‘paintings.’
This interview appears in full in the ‘Painting’s Not Dead!’ Issue (13.4) of ARTsouthAFRICA – on shelves at a store near you! You will also be able to read this exclusive content in the July Digital Issue (FREE download here for Apple and here for Android).
ARTsouthAFRICA: Hello Nambowa! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Although the swirl of vibrant brushstrokes and the figurative nature of your work suggest oil on canvas, the portraits that you create are in fact digitally rendered. When did you begin using digital illustration to represent the brushstrokes and effects of physical painting or drawing?
Nambowa Malua: I appreciate the time you have taken to talk to me. When I was an art student at the University of Namibia (UNAM), my love for traditional medium was very strong – to the extent that I never foresaw nor imagined myself creating digital artworks for non-commercial purposes, or for any other purpose.
However, I was always mortified when lecturers made an example of me in front of various painting and drawing classes because most of my drawings and paintings were smeared and smudged. Unlike other freshmen, I didn’t have the patience to spend countless hours neatly perfecting my pieces. Although I eventually managed to overcome the syndrome of imperfection, I am thankful for the invention of digital art!
My digital journey began in 2012. I would like to call it an experiment, but it always seems that it might have been an accident or perhaps some kind of ‘calling.’ I fell in love with digital art when I received my first drawing tablet; a simple and unadorned piece of flat grey plastic.
In all its aspects, digital art is indeed very representational, as with any other form of art. Although I always try to simulate brushstrokes and other effects of physical paintings or drawings, the intention is always for the viewer to appreciate the content and the message in the artworks. In my view, content matters more than medium.
Why the choice to (digitally) represent brushstrokes as opposed to actually making them (with traditional materials)?
As an artist I was fortunate to stumble upon what works best for me, and that is the flexibility and limitlessness that the digital environment offers me. However it is a common perception that brushstrokes are much more treasured when they are in tactile form, connected with a sense of physicality. That may be true, but it all comes down to the content. In reality, brushstrokes are simply limbs that make up the body of an artwork.
I used traditional methods of creating art before I started working digitally and, from what I have observed, many uninformed art lovers and artists themselves understand digital painting as a way to create breath-taking and inspiring works of art without having to really do the work. I think that some people outside of the digital sphere assume that the computer does everything at a touch of button, and the artist is just a tool. But the opposite is true – and that to me is the trickiest part of working digitally. Applications like Photoshop or Painter are simply tools for creating art.
How should I set up this composition? Where is my focal point? What colour pallete should I use? I think these questions are infinitely more valuable to ask instead of “What do you use to create art?” or “Are you a traditional or a digital painter?” The latter questions relate to a technical problem while the former questions relate to a creative one. Both sets are completely valid to ask but I think the creative questions will offer a final destination for a piece of art.
How do you think innovative technologies such as digital art are changing the more traditional mediums and expressions of ‘fine art’?
I think technologies like digital art or photography are conceived out of necessity, rather than for the sake of changing or substituting the old ways.
The evolution of art has always been intrinsically connected to many forms of expansion and development. Dynamic cultures, political movements and new technologies have shaped and reshaped the face of fine art in various ways. Art and art making has always been subject to the rise of new movements, old ways of creating have been modified and refined, and new technical methods of creating have been devised. New forms and methods of art making give birth to new waves of expression.
Alfred Stieglitz said that, “Painting portraiture will become obsolete when the time arrives that photographers will have learned something about portraiture in its deeper sense.” Your portraits hang somewhere in the balance between photography and painting, using digital processes in a pastiche of painterly techniques. What informs your subject matter? Why portraits?
The depth of any art form lies in the creative process that the artist must go through when engaging with their subject matter. In the case of portraiture, we confront the human element. Getting to know your subject better, their troubles and dreams, really anything you can glean from them – that is the one thing that gives meaning and depth to portraits.
The digital process of creating portraits borrows techniques from painting and photography. I often use more than three photos of one person as references, to create an artwork with that is absolutely unique in terms of angles and lighting.
The human face is fascinating in a way that it can never be fully explored nor understood. I love telling stories through the human face and I am very much driven to be observant of and attentive to the subtle expressions as well as the pronounced and emotive ones.
You were born in Namibia, and continue to live and work there. How has this affected your artistic practice? What is the contemporary art scene like in Namibia?
Although I was born in Namibia, I was raised in Angola and spent a few years in South Africa as a boy. I went back to Angola for another two and half years and returned to Namibia in 2007, as a teenager eager to finish school and study fine art.
Nostalgia and the physical or spiritual environment I find myself in influence my artistic practice. The African experience, the people, the land and the supernatural energies are the elements that inform my work.
The Namibian contemporary art scene is young and fresh. There are many opportunities for emerging artists, and for establishes ones. Every year we have more artists exhibiting their work outside of Namibia, which is a promising sign of a growing industry. However, digital art and various new media are still in the process of being valued as legitimate art forms. I am proud to be a practitioner of what I would like to see grow into a powerful medium.
You have said, “Facebook… is a fantastic social media tool for artists to find new audiences.” Have you, indeed, managed to attract a wider audience to your work? Would you recommend social media to other artists as a tool for promoting their work, or does it only work for those working in a digital medium?
It is quite obvious that social media is the ultimate advertising platform. I reach more than 80% of my audience through social media. Artists can now share their portfolios with a global audience. In fact, many visual artists use social media sites as virtual exhibition spaces, with their work curated and exhibited in different categories. Soon enough, art lovers and collectors will have to embrace the era of digital galleries and ‘digital exhibitions.’
As an emerging artist in Southern Africa, how would you say we could further promote the work of young creatives like yourself to a global audience?
A general lack of support and resources means that young artists, especially in Southern Africa, will have to perform odd jobs to survive, support and protect their creative journeys.
Q&A sessions and publications on exhibitions allow the art community to learn more about the creative process and nomadic minds of artists. Publications like yours are the ‘archivers’ and platforms for the gospel of art. Young artists need to be given such opportunities to discuss and explain their creative journeys to the world – this could well be the most powerful promotional tool for creatives.
However, promoting and sharing the work of artists is one thing; availing resources and opportunities for young artists to create is another altogether, and is in fact the starting point. It is a fact that young Southern African artists want their work promoted, but what they need more are resources and opportunities to create, in order for them to stand on their feet as artists.