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Visual Artist Tishk Barzanji on handling social media and feeling invisible

Today Tishk Barzanji, a London-based 28-year-old, boasts a thriving career as a visual artist and just recently graced the cove of Computer Arts Magazine. But his life took some unpredictable twists and turns to get him to where he is today. Born in Kurdistan, Iraq, Barzanji came to London as a refugee at the age of seven. Initially pursuing a career in physics, Barzanji suddenly fell ill and ended up bedridden for an entire year in 2013. “I remember being in bed, and my mum would come into my room and look into my eyes and think that my life is over”, he tells NBGA in an interview. During this period, Barzanji started taking photographs, write in his journal and revitalise his interest in art. Within months his beautiful depictions of black figures lost in colourful, maze-like structures launched an unexpected career as a full-time artist.

We called up Barzanji to ask him about his artistry and the struggles he’s been through – and the conversation culminated into an inspirational tale about a young man who once felt invisible. If you’re in the mood for something highly uplifting and inspirational (and, I mean, of course you are?), read our interview with Barzanji below!

You have a very unique aesthetic. I would love to hear more about the process of finding your visual niche.

So I did the first piece of a painting and I left it for like a week, and then I realised after, I really want to change this piece, or kind of like, some parts of it. At the time I was following a guy on Instagram and he used to do animations, so I thought to myself “what if I do like, turn my paintings into the computer and change it digitally?” And that’s how that idea began.

‘What I’m doing now is just a period. I don’t think many people know that. They might think “this is him”, but it’s just a period of my career.’

It really blurs the lines between being an artist, art director, illustrator and graphic designer. It’s really all of those things combined!

When I was making my work, people would say “you’re an illustrator or you’re this or that”, and I don’t see it that way. I see it more, like, I’m just trying to get a message across. What I’m doing now is just a period. I don’t think many people know that. They might think “this is him”, but it’s just a period of my career.

 

So you’re saying that your visual language and your aesthetic right now, you see that as just a style for the time being? And then who knows what your aesthetic will be two years from now?

Exactly. I mean, my eventual goal is to make installations. At the moment, this is like research for installations.

 

So what we’re witnessing right now is you doing research?

Exactly, yeah.

You’ve chosen to depict charcoal-black figures in your landscapes. What do these anonymous silhouettes of men and women represent to you?

Are they anyone in particular?

At the beginning of my work when I was building the identity of the characters, I decided to use anonymous figures. So the work is not judged on race or gender. Occasionally I may identify the male or female depending on the context of the work. The work I’m creating really is reflecting the times I’m living in. Where I see injustice, whether its racism or gender inequality I won’t hesitate to create work regarding these issues.

 

Could you elaborate a little about the colours that you use in your work?

Mainly the colours I use are found on streets when I’m walking around when I was ill. It is never about if the colours would create a piece that everyone would like. For me what’s important is the colours that represent the emotion and atmosphere I am trying to convey. Sometimes I’ve used colours that may not work well together, but for me, it has a different meaning.

I use a lot of shadows as well. Because when I was in my room on my own, nobody would understand how I felt. Because the illness is not something you can see from the outside, it’s all on the inside. So I stayed in my bedroom. And I remember the light shining into my room, the light would shine on a particular thing in the room – that’s why the shadow is a really important aspect to my work.

Just because something doesn’t get likes, it doesn’t mean it’s not good.

A lot of artists are making a name for themselves through social media and their artistry can really be shaped by the love they get online. Do you feel like that affects you?

I think especially with Instagram and social media, as an artist, you might lose your way because if you make a piece of work everyone loves because you get likes and things like that, you feel you want to do more work in the same way, to gain more following. And also, it’s very important to separate that from your actual art and progress. Just because something doesn’t get likes, it doesn’t mean it’s not good.
There was a period where I was feeling a bit lost with my work. And then I met this designer… and it was new years eve. And I just remember telling him like “I’m really confused about my work” and he just said “oh you know that colourful stuff you did before, that was really good, you should carry on doing that.” And I remember that night, I was at home, and I didn’t sleep because I wanted to do this new piece based on what he said. And I remember putting it out and everyone loved it. And that’s what really gave me the push to actually, like, follow this style.

And I think you’ve got to decide for yourself what you’re trying to do. Are you trying to sell yourself, or your art?

When you share your work on Instagram you write very poetic captions. I think some artists might be scared to narrate their own work because it doesn’t leave the piece open to interpretation. But perhaps you feel like it adds an extra layer of complexity?

Yeah, for sure. And I was actually anxious to write captions in the beginning, because, you know, some people might think of it in a different way, or things like that. But then I got good reactions from it. People really relate to it. And that really inspired me to carry on with it.

Because in a way, you are telling your own story, and when you add words to that, you are also taking control over your own narrative.

Yeah, one hundred percent. It’s something that I’m really interested in as much as the art right now. Before it was just about the art, but now I’m really focused on the writing as well.

So to a certain degree, you do get affected by the reactions you get online, but you still try to find a balance between listening to people’s opinions, but then also staying true to yourself and not falling victim to it?

Yeah, of course. Also with social media … when you have a certain amount of followers, they look at you in a different way. Imagine if they didn’t show you how many followers you have. All it would be is just your work.

And that’s the thing with social media as well… I think for some artists their persona might be bigger than their art. And their persona gets more recognised than their art. And I think you’ve got to decide for yourself what you’re trying to do. Are you trying to sell yourself, or your art?

But it’s good to have reactions and opinions as well. Because you learn from that as well. And the second thing is, I’ve met amazing artists through it. I’ve met so many amazing artists that I would never probably meet [without social media].

Are you in a positive place right now?

Yeah. The best thing that has happened during recent years was that I’ve been more open with people. I’ve been more open and social. So before this, until I was probably 24, I wasn’t social, I wasn’t trying to have lasting friendships with people. It just wasn’t in me. I don’t know why, and I look back on it as a different life. I was a totally different person back then.
I think, because of the illness, it taught me about how things can change. It made me aware of other issues, like, I didn’t know much about anxiety. I didn’t know it was a physical thing. So now, I can really relate to that.

Back then, I was in a different stage in my life. I was really – I didn’t know what was going on. I was upset, I was confused. But now I’m in a different stage of my life. I can’t make work about that because I’m not feeling those things anymore. I can’t think of anything that’s bad in my life right now.

I didn’t exist before. I wasn’t even alive. I was just living. That’s how I see it.

And how does that affect your work?

The work I’m making now is more positive about the things I’m feeling. And also, it might be more about world issues that I care about. In the beginning, I tried to keep away from political things like that. I tried to keep it just personal.

And also, like, in the last year, so many things have happened where I had to go look in the mirror to check if I’m the same person. Because, I’m like, “wow! How did I get here?” It’s like, it’s crazy because I was in bed? For me, the whole story is very important. But not just for me, I want to share it with people, to show them, like, it doesn’t matter where you are, you can do something. And even myself, I’m surprised! Because I had all these ambitions and goals in my life, and I never thought I would achieve it. I was like “how is this happening?” because I was just, I didn’t exist before. I wasn’t even alive. I was just living. That’s how I see it.
That’s why I think it’s important, that people that are in a bad situation, I try to tell them, like, you can change things. And it can change quickly. Like I said, I was invisible. Years ago, I was invisible. I wouldn’t have any lasting connections or things like that. But now, I’m visible.

Interview by Michelle Hallström
Pictures by Tishk Bazanji