“Art is subjective, and therefore, what we consider innovative is subjective, too.” Though he may question whether an exact definition of innovation exists, Russell Abrahams’ response to Burger King’s call for a collaborator shaped a groundbreaking and innovative campaign: A mural painted with fire. Now the way Abrahams, or Yay Abe, views his own art has changed and his trajectory as an African contemporary artist has evolved. He insists that not only will his career narrative be affected, but also Africa’s narrative will be affected by the work of contemporary artists. Innovating in illustration benefits Africa, himself, and the thousands of undiscovered African illustrators trying to break into the industry.
In 2014, the Capetonian illustrator won at the annual Design Indaba, as part of the Emerging Creatives programme. He later founded the illustration studio, Yay Abe. At the Design Indaba he got to meet fellow contemporary artists and discuss projects, and at Yay Abe he could share these possibilities with other hopeful illustrators. Collaboration has fuelled his chosen career in illustration, and he has worked with brands such as Woolworths, Red Bull and now Burger King. Fittingly, Yay Abe, with a name that celebrates his heritage and family name ‘Abrahams’, was created as a family built business that brings creatives together.
Collaboration sometimes lets an artist open their mind to new ideas. Abrahams discusses that collaborating with Burger King helped him create something he could take pride in. It evidenced his weaving in and growth of new techniques within work. “Every day, I see artists experimenting with new styles, textures, and narratives.” For Abrahams, illustration is not a static thing. “It is a very exciting space... and one I know will continue evolving as individuals express themselves through their art. As we grow, we evolve, and in turn, our art evolves too.”
Abrahams keeps reinventing new ways to paint and refuses to play it safe. The Burger King collaboration gave him the chance to use Birchwood as a canvas and a blow torch as a paintbrush, providing him with a new perspective. Musingly, he states that rather than just applying paint to the surface, he changed the very nature of it. Changing instead of applying. These words he states, “ring true to the work most young African artists are pioneering.” Through the bravery of reimagining what contemporary art is, he questions the very assumptions that may keep some illustrators from backing their craft. Specifically, “our focus has shifted from traditional Western standards” and to those on Abraham’s own turf: Africa.
Like art, continents evolve. There is a link between Africa and its art, similar as well in any country. This is why his efforts with Yay Abe reach out to those African artists who need the mentorship: Growth is paramount to progress. “Each country has its own history and story. There’s a certain voice and set of aesthetics that defines a country.” Abrahams sees this set of aesthetics in South African artwork and is conscious of its power.
Purposefully, his illustrations harness the specific culture privy to being a “coloured South African male” making his work “inherently African art.” Abrahams insists, “I am my art, and my art is me. I think some people are afraid or embarrassed to label their work as African art, but I am proud to call myself a contemporary African artist.”
However, Abrahams speaks candidly of the blessings of the internet and its role in creating a cosmopolitan art space.The contemporary art scenes are littered with artists “mixing and matching ideas and patterns in a way that creates multi-cultural art. In a sense, we are creating our own micro-countries.” The internet then becomes a hub for sharing cultural expressions.
With these new tools and new opportunities he faces what he describes as the huge lack of diversity in the illustration industry. From Cape Town, he has reached the diverse range of people that eat at Burger King, and pushed his own family business. “I believe we need to include and welcome (what was previously considered) minority groups in the industry.”
“If Yay Abe is a platform to inspire and teach the youth, and not just be for me to create beautiful things, then South Africa will soon be replete with art that she can see herself in.”
Abrahams suggests budding artists let the work speak for itself, and learn the visual language to create work that stands the test of time. The visual language is innovative all by itself: it helps write narratives by whomever uses it. By expressing himself and using the resources around him, Abraham proves himself part of an “industry that is reimagining what contemporary art is”, pushing for others around him to “start to look to Africa as the source of our inspiration.”