Odds are when you think of ballet you imagine limber-limbed porcelain figures spinning atop beautifully lit stages in front of an audience that sits in riveted silence. Well, either that or Save the Last Dance, the 2001 MTV production that had teenagers all over the world sighing with pleasure over its youthfully romantic depiction of an inter-racial romance (and yes, there was some ballet involved).
Thato Mwosa, on the other hand, associated the word ballet with the knowledge that there was a severe under-representation of black figures in the industry, more so when it came to finding appropriate ballet-inspired art to use in decorating her daughter’s room. The Botswana-born, Boston-based artist was then inspired to create Tuli Art, an illustration brand that primarily focuses on black ballerina art. With the way each unique piece plays on vibrant hues representative of an even more vibrant culture, not to mention the sharp lines reminiscent of the graceful movements that define the performance of ballet, it really is no wonder that friends and strangers alike were soon lapping it all up.
Before this becomes a full-blown out-and-out success story, I decided to catch up with Thato via e-chat to learn more about Tuli Art and why it is so important. Thankfully despite the 7 hour time difference between Nairobi and Boston (not to mention the dodgy internet connection on my end), we managed to have a very enlightening conversation. Here’s how our little chat went down.
You started Tuli Art out of frustration when you failed to find ballet-inspired art that could speak to your daughter’s (and your) ethnic heritage. But was there also a vested interest on your part in the actual performance of ballet?
I’ve always loved ballet and admired dancers. I missed a chance to do it as a kid but you know, once I had my daughter, I knew that I wanted her to take ballet. She loves twirling around in her tutus, so that’s promising! One thing I like about dance is that it looks glamorous, but one has to learn to be dedicated and committed. These are invaluable life skills.
I’m sure a lot of black girls have looked at ballet and admired it as an art form. However, it’s also very annoying to note how little we are represented in art and real life when it comes to ballet. Would you say this influences you when it comes to naming some of your ballerinas, even giving them back stories?
Yes! I didn’t know that there are hardly any black ballerinas depicted in art. We are living in a time of Misty Copeland, Michaela DePrince and Ingrid Silva; these ballerina super stars are a rare breed in the world of ballet. Now, young girls of color are inspired by ballerinas like Misty. They now see themselves succeeding as ballerinas. But as we know, we are influenced by what we consume from the media, be it books, movies or even art. So it’s important to tell the stories of Misty, Ingrid and Michaela; and it’s as important to depict ballerinas in other art forms as well. When I started decorating my daughter’s room, I was appalled at the lack of diversity in the ballerina art. Most had Eurocentric features, and I wanted to create images that my daughter and other girls of color could see themselves in.
Yet I’m sure that some people would argue that ballet is predominantly white anyway–or in any case very non-black. What can you say about this particular viewpoint?
I will ask them to watch Alvin Ailley. When you watch Alvin Ailley and see how soulful ballet can be using Afro centric music, you realize that ballet is really global.
That being said, I love your Afrik Art series, especially the depictions of what you call the sophisticated metropolitan African woman. How do your Botswana roots play into this?
With the Afrik Series, which I created earlier than ballerinas, I just wanted to depict me and my friends: how we wear our hair and how we dress. The most compelling thing about the art is the intricate details that go into the women’s dresses. I love African fabric and I wanted to draw the various patterns and fractals that you see in our fabric. Afrik Art is really a celebration of the Afropolitan woman. I know this woman; I see her when I go to Nairobi, Jo’burg and Gaborone. I also see her in the streets of London, New York and Boston.
I know what you mean. I showed your work to a few people that I know and they were wondering how and where they could get that—which was ironic considering that we’re in Africa ourselves where such art should be in plenty. Is this something you’re observing yourself, this kind global interest?
Yes, and I will be looking for distributers to the global market. I am in the early stages of the business but I am hoping for my products to reach Africa. Lately, I have been focusing on the quality of product and marketing by way of social networks. People can buy online and we ship to anywhere in the world though the cost of shipping may be pricey.
And you’re also a film maker, which is pretty amazing! Do these two passions, art and film, interconnect?
I’m working on a TV series and I need funding for it. When people started ordering the ballerinas I figured out it was one way to raise money for my film. My frustration as a filmmaker is that one needs money to turn their ideas into a film. But with illustration, all you need is a marker and a paper to express yourself. I figured maybe if Tuli Art is a success, I can fund my own films instead of going through the challenging task of fundraising.
If someone asked you to put in a single statement why what you’re doing is important as a black woman, what would you say?
It’s important for women to be able to express themselves by sharing their own stories because for the longest time, our stories have been told for us, by others.
Make sure to check out Tuli Art to see some of Thato’s illustrations.