Sade Shoalane is an emerging experimental artist living and working in Oodi, Botswana. The young artistic survivor of childhood sexual abuse works with found material and fabrics, exploring poignant subthemes like sexual reproductive health rights, culture and self-healing.
Since 2010, she has studied and worked in the field of communications; from pursuing a degree in Media Studies at the University of Botswana [UB], teaching young children visual art to coordinating art events. She quickly got disillusioned by the tyranny of colonialism masked as academia. So in order to probe a more lateral approach to the exchanging of ideas, Sade dropped out of varsity in 2016, to pursue an auspicious art career. She is a member of Thapong Visual Art Centre and regularly exhibits at independent art shows around the capital city, Gaborone. In 2017, she won the prize for Young Artist of the Year at the annual Thapong Artist of the Year Awards [TAYA].
Sade Shoalane generates art that leans towards aesthetic vulgarity. This is a deliberate decision to promote an unfettered ideology that embraces otherness in the arts.
This conversation took place in Gaborone, Botswana via email.
Bhagwan: Tell me everything Sade, from your background, experiences and researches that have impacted your work.
Sade: As a self-proclaimed artistic survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I am on a journey to self-heal. To heal from the traumas, the memories and all the ugly things that one would want to distance themselves from. How do I do this? By using found material. My choice in using found material started from childhood. I always made little things…toys for myself. They bought me toys but I like making things for myself, you know? They’d buy me a doll—the doll usually comes with one outfit and then I’d make more outfits from scrap things or maybe I’d cut up my socks or maybe a scarf or something. So, I’ve always had the need to use my hands to do something, to express myself. In terms of my professional art career, I started collecting material about 7 years ago when I realized that we need to live a more sustainable life as human beings. We can’t just keep buying things, throwing them away and keep buying more. It doesn’t work. I felt guilty that I was part of the problem, so I wanted to be part of the solution. That’s when I discovered how to recycle old memories. They stay with you, like the plastics in the sea.
Bhagwan: So, what are and what has been the key stages in the development of your practice?
Sade: I have been a professional artist for about 2 years now. I started in June 2016 when I dropped out of school. In 2016, I was very self-involved because I was hurting from everything I had experienced in school because institutionalized education was very traumatic for me. My brain found it hard to constantly be dealing with such colonial logic. It required a lot of left brain action, but I’m left handed, which means that my right brain is doing more work, so creatively I was struggling. There was this violent push and pull that I needed to remove myself from. In terms of my art, I focused a lot more on how I looked and how I felt. I worked a lot more on identity…I toiled with questions like, who am I? What do I want to do in terms of art? Then I realized I can’t run away from my childhood experiences. At the same time, I don’t want them to be the only thing that defines me. What I did was, give my childhood sexual abuse story, the respect and attention it deserved without praising it as my creator. It was and continues to be an internal balance I have to maintain so that I function. I also had to deal with all these emotional thorns, before I could really comment on bigger issues like the politics of a country. The last half of 2016, I was focusing on finding my voice as an artist. Then I realized that it’s okay if your art looks weird or wrong because you felt weird or you felt wrong at the time you were making it…that’s what makes it authentic. From December 2016 until early 2017, I sold jewelry and clothes but I didn’t feel artistically or creatively fulfilled. I really felt empty. Sure I could make nice looking earrings or iron wash some clothes to sell—that was easy. But I just didn’t feel nourished. Financially, it was making sense but creatively it wasn’t. So, I shifted back to drawing, but this time I coupled it with obscure object making, in mid-2017. Later that year, I started to use more of the raw materials I collected over the year to make these objects. Thapong Artist of the Year was coming up in November. And since my artworks didn’t even qualify to be exhibited in 2016, I challenged myself to do something bigger. I decided; let me do the proper research on the type of art I want to make, that’s how I found the topic I wanted to indulge in.
“In terms of my art, I focused a lot more on how I looked and how I felt. I worked a lot more on identity…I toiled with questions like, who am I? What do I want to do in terms of art? Then I realized I can’t run away from my childhood experiences. At the same time, I don’t want them to be the only thing that defines me.“
Bhagwan: Let’s talk about that provocative piece – “Penetrating Patriarchy”. How did that come about? Where did you find such walking stick worthy wood?
Sade: In my mother’s yard, where I live, there was a tree in the front. It was dead for a couple of years. Either it was struck by lightning or the wind toppled it over…one of my two friends came and helped me bring the tree down. There was this smaller branch. It was about 2 meters and it had 2 sections that looked like penises immediately. So that vision marinated in my mind for while.
Bhagwan: I like how it plays into childhood. When we used to find tree parts that kind of resembled something. Either a hockey stick or something.
Sade: Exactly. It took me there for sure. There was this childlike glee that developed in me. So, I was like, once I find the topic to match what I’m seeing here I’ll make what I need to make. And then the case of the catholic bishop who ‘allegedly’ raped several nuns came up… I remember this surge of energy bolt through me as I read the story. That’s when I knew what I would make. That’s when I knew what I would art about.
Bhagwan: That’s what triggered you to fire off this piece?
Sade: Yes! That and my mediocre submission (at TAYA) from 2016. I literally died that night, really. Fell into a dazed depression for a couple of months. I spent time reminding myself that the artist inside knows what she’s doing. She’s alive in me somewhere. I eventually found her and made her work. We needed something that was impactful, something you couldn’t ignore. When that story broke I was like yah, this is the one. I was baptized at that very church. I have family that is still part of this very system. I re-read the story and did a bit more research by following the people’s reactions online, the media follow-up reports. I was quite appalled actually.
Bhagwan: The piece has several motifs. One of which is a, faux leather phallic cut out, threaded with the words, ‘Masculinism is Evil’. When I look at your piece, that’s what strikes me the most. It’s literally in the viewers face. What led you to use such salient elements?
Sade: I have a background in gender advocacy, skills I learned from the Young Women’s Leadership Club at the University of Botswana. I went back to the eBooks & pdfs about rape culture, oppression in the church and patriarchy in the Catholic Church in Africa. I was reading all of it then I re-discovered that there are terms like masculinism. Masculinism is the antithesis of feminism. It’s basically pro-patriarchy. And since folks from this, and most other churches, pray to a male God, the phallic nose just fell into place. Masculinism…patriarchy is the oppression of another, for the sake of, what? I needed the viewer to face the fact that this system is tyrannical. The system of the church as it is today is unfair. That’s why the phallus is in the face as part of the nose, as part of the mouth. It almost looks animalistic, alluding to a lack of control of ourselves.
Bhagwan: It basically looks like your average old African man. The mustache. Even the shape of the head just kind of looks like that, some old African patriarch. Now, there are also bandages around the protruding phalluses which kind of announce a sense of pain.
Sade: Everything was intentional. I needed material that look like the ones worn and used in the church by the priest and the nuns. So I came to see how these bishops and priests actually dress. It’s very opulent. The time I came, the guy was wearing a green and white robe with gold trimming. When I checked the Pope, he had some lace robe, also with gold trimmings. It’s all very feminine, when you step back and look at it. I looked through my stock of fabric and found some lace off-cut’s from a siblings wedding attire. When I wrapped it around the wooden penis, it looked like a bandage. Lace is more of a feminized fabric so placing it at the tip reverts the piece back to the whole story of the bishop who ‘allegedly’ raped the nuns. That wound of betrayal, it needed to be healed. That’s what that is.
Bhagwan: Oh, okay. So for me, watching someone react to my writing feels like a celebration or a nod to existence. From your observation, do people feel your work or is some of it more intellectually received? Also, which would you prefer?
Sade: It’s a mix of all that you pointed out. It depends on the work itself, it depends on the people who view it. So, I can’t really judge which is which. This particular piece, the reaction was high as much as it was low. I’m not sure if there was anything in between in this particular case. What I mean by high is that, there was this particular guy, gesticulating behind me as I was being interviewed on the night of the awards. He came to me and said in Setswana, “are you the one who did this one? You’re going to explain to me what exactly this is!’’ His aggression was evident, so when my interview wrapped, I left… I didn’t want to deal with him. Online, one of my relatives responded saying ‘’…it looks like some voodoo thing”. I was like yeah that’ll do. Voodoo in terms of charms and the like and how the Catholics love their charms but they are so in denial about it. So, that’s how the response was hot and cold. Cold because I really did think the intellectuals and woke folk, on Facebook specifically, would be more interactive with the piece. I really did think that. But the overall response was tepid. Only the people I already had a relationship with responded. My family didn’t really respond much.
Bhagwan: Where do you hope to eventually take your work in its totality? Is there a climax to all of this? More specifically where do you hope to find yourself in 2022?
Sade: I want to be in a place where my art is more famous than me. I’m okay with just putting the thing there and leaving, but still make a living out of it. Ultimately, I want to be able to travel and do these art residencies, learn some much needed wealth management skills, become financially stable and continue working within the art field. That for me is what will keep me happy in life. I really can’t see myself being a waitress and then not arting about my waitressing experiences. I can’t afford to split myself like that anymore.
Bhagwan: What’s your signature? There must be a stubborn theme that is always recurrent in your work.
Sade: Discomfort. Either me reflecting on mine and therefore making the audience uncomfortable or society’s discomfort and therefore making me uncomfortable.
Bhagwan: Do you think it’s going to be like that forever?
Sade: For some time. Until I find something else that’ll intrigue me.
Bhagwan: On a more personal note, I want to know where in the world you find the courage to live off your art, which is risky in and of itself. It’s risky art you make to be honest. How do you deal with the fear when it comes, if it comes?
Sade: I find the courage from within, honestly. I find it from the fact that I was suffocating when I wasn’t arting. I was a zombie. I don’t want to be a dead zombie, especially in Botswana as a woman. Men are so privileged they can be homeless in Botswana and it’s a lot less treacherous than if you’re a woman. So this fear thing, it’s a dance. That’s the trepidation that makes me sleep at 7pm and wake up at 7am. I’m a bit inconsistent in terms of personal rituals, which is okay because that means I’m deconstructing. I’ve learnt to befriend the fear. It’s always going to be there so when I realize that it’s there I’m less scared of it because it’s my friend.
Bhagwan: You don’t create a layer of fear on the fear.
Sade: It’s always there so I build a layer of confidence around the fear. I can package it in my bag and take it with me. I am art-ing through the fear with the fear about the fear—creating a culture of confidence.
Bhagwan: Do you see your work ever transforming into something that’s totally different—in terms of medium, style, execution etc?
Sade: Because change is constant my work is constantly changing into something else…I’m a slow thinker, but very fast feeler. Finding that balance often needs me to evolve in terms of the creative things I want to indulge in. To feed the creative hunger I have, I need to acknowledge the fact that I’m in rapid evolution. That’s how I moved from just drawing to making jewelry to object making. The latter is some form of sculpture. You can call it that if you want. For me, it’s more of just an object because I don’t like boxing myself in terms of creativity. I’m in a constant state of evolution. I’m constantly sitting back and feeling through like, last week I said I’d do this thing, now I’m doing this other thing this week. Reinventing myself. (In 2022,) I’ll be doing a lot more performance based artwork, a lot more experiential ones, event based ones. I particularly enjoy creating a space in my mind, formulating it for the outside world and then inviting people to come and experience that which I experienced myself. I see a lot more spatial work where it’s a lot less ‘oh she made these ten objects’ and it’s a lot more ‘oh I’ve been to all ten of her shows’, but her shows won’t always be her standing in front of the audience singing. Sometimes, it will be you standing in front of me, just gazing.
Bhagwan: You gave me so much gold.
Sade: Okay, good!
Bhagwan is a Zimbabwe born unpublished writer who despises words. His background is split between his home country and Botswana where sounds began to take form through him bringing about vivid stories filled with sexually inspired insights and some occasional stoicism. The experiments he has conducted have been a fruitful source of that which is beyond information, interpretations and ultimately duality. He has also unofficially shared poems and short stories with people and engaged in sharpening criticism to keep grounded. When not writing you will find him up a tree or with his dog learning not to talk.