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March 3, 2021

Black Women in Paradise: Zandile Tshabalala at ADA \ contemporary art gallery

The opulent acrylic paintings in Zandile Tshabalala’s debut solo exhibition challenge and deconstruct historical depictions of Black women in art.

Having opened at the ADA \ contemporary art gallery in Ghana last week, Enter Paradise features a selection of the Johannesburg-based artist’s figurative self-portraits, which interrogate alternative ways of depicting Black women on the canvas. Portraying figures with intensely pigmented skin-tones surrounded by semi-abstract backgrounds, Tshabalala creates unique, sensual dreamscapes that affirm Black women’s rights to a place in their own sense of paradise.

Currently completing a Fine Arts degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, Tshabalala uses her work to challenge the representations of Black women in the historical canon of art. For much of Western art history, Black women have been repeatedly depicted as inferior and undesirable, if they were present at all. In contrast, Tshabalala’s portraits celebrate Black women, using vibrant colours and poses to depict them as comfortable, confident, and completely in control of their bodies and sexuality. Although Tshabalala painted the women, who often stare unapologetically at the viewer from the canvas, as self-portraits, the gallery shared in a statement that ‘the painting series moves away from accurate depiction’ as a way to embody both Tshabalala’s individual empowerment and the beauty and strength of the Black female figure more universally.


The bold women of Tshabalala’s works are supported by both simple and luxurious backdrops that play with the traditional idea of a natural paradise. Subjects are placed in a brilliantly natural world both literally, when among the bright leaves of lush, tropical plants, and more figuratively, when surrounded by animal prints or browsing a book of landscape paintings by one of Tshabalala’s inspirations, Henri Reynolds. By mixing the settings of the portraits, Tshabalala highlights the ways more mundane moments in her own life can embody the title of her exhibit, Enter Paradise. ‘I found myself engaging with the term “Paradise” in a different manner,’ she says, ‘moving away from an idealized representation of “Paradise” to an everyday, tangible perception of smaller “paradises.”’

With its bold and vibrant portraiture, Tshabalala’s debut exhibition challenges traditional representations, both of Black women and of the paradises they might inhabit. Following a wonderfully successful opening, the Enter Paradise exhibition has been extended and will now be displayed at ADA \ until April 18, 2021. If you don’t find yourself in Ghana, however, stay tuned for a digital gallery, where you’ll be able to see more of her powerful work for yourself.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy reading about one of the ADA gallery’s previous exhibition, Eniwaye Oluwaseyi’s The Politics of Shared Spaces, or the exploration of Black identity in the surrealist portraiture of Emmanuel Taku.


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