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My body, canvas

Multidisciplinary artist Tammi mbambo uses Makeup to ask: What would I look like if I could paint the world (and Myself) differently?


Well, the face is the window to the soul. Whether you choose to wear makeup or not, and, by association, how or to what extent you embellish yourself, says a lot about who you are as a person and how you identify with the world. Do you wear it to conceal or enhance the so-called ugly truth? Is makeup purely functional? Or do you view it as an imposition, an archaic tool of the patriarchy that (still) reinforces the (very) problematic idea that women need to be beautified or altered in some way to make them more acceptable in a male-dominated world? What if you could use makeup to challenge those notions and empower individuals to change the belief structures and social programming they’ve inherited? That’s where KwaZulu-Natal-born fine art graduate Tammi Mbambo’s work comes to life.

Most of us aren’t or don’t feel free to express who we are. Whether or not that’s for cultural, personal or social reasons, there’s an idea or belief about what’s acceptable or what’s expected of us that we’ve all inherited and accepted on some level, especially when it comes to things like makeup and beauty. Everything from the images you interact with on social media to the way you put your face on in the morning reinforces that idea. And that’s why Tammi’s work is so engaging. She wants to remind you that you have permission and the power to change all of that. “You can live the life you want – even if it’s mostly make-believe in your mind, at first,” she explains.

“I want to share the message of how liberating and fulfilling it is to choose to bring your inner utopia out into the real world. While I do this through various mediums such as painting and writing, makeup and fashion have become a way for me to create and embody characters that allow me to do this.”

For Tammi, much of that is about changing and taking control of the narrative. “My body is my most sacred canvas and my mind’s favourite collaborator. I often work with it because it feels like the most authentic canvas on which to express my ideas or to help manifest a concept in the most lucid way.” Claiming the body in this way also asserts a special kind of power. “I wish to be an example of a Black femme person in South Africa who takes her perspective seriously and exercises agency, intellect and brilliance to achieve life, creative, perspective and a professional practise that’s exclusively mine by design.” And it’s the integrity of saying, “this is who I am, who I want to be and how I want to look today because I chose this for myself, and I’m the only person who has the power to make that decision and manifest my reality.”

That’s not to say Tammi approaches all makeup that way, but she certainly doesn’t see it as a necessary addition to a look. “While I like a bit of concealer and mascara to feel fresh and ready for my day (in the same way I like to brush my hair and teeth), my primary interest in the medium (as an artist) is that it encapsulates so many interesting and challenging notions around beauty, social standards, expression, freedom, femininity, skill and the pressure to conform. It’s a cool but complex subject with a storied history and several interesting connotations: some good, some bad. Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to it – that desire to show it in a way that elevates it beyond its two-dimensional, outdated history.”

Tammi’s work is her lifeline, “my fountain of youth, my baby, my inspiration and my greatest joy. It has taught me how to thrive, provide for and forgive myself, love, and breathe. ”It’s an expression of personal transformation that reminds us that “change is important.

It’s paramount to the human experience and is deeply necessary, but also completely inevitable.” Real change, however, often happens behind the scenes and underground. It’s sometimes grimy, unpolished and intense, but that means it can ignore the rules. And when it’s authentic, it’ll only serve us all to see and experience it. That, after all, is the real purpose of creativity: the power and potential to change the collective, to truly transform the individual and enrich the human experience with just one look.”

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