Cape Town illustrator Russell Abrahams has been upping the local standard for quite some time. Kaylon Koeries and Quasiem Gamiet caught up with the man behind the new design studio, Yay Abe, to discuss the pleasures and pains of being a creative entrepreneur in the Mother City.
How did you realise illustration was your thing?
In high school, I developed a huge interest in drawing but didn’t really know where it could go. I was just having fun with it and that was the best part. I went through the normal, linear process of studying graphic design and – in my second year of studies – I discovered that there was this “thing” called illustration. I was not aware of the concept at that time, but ended up venturing into that by drawing a lot of odd characters.
I got involved with Design Indaba as part of the Emerging Creatives Programme, which really helped me form my current network. My peers really pushed me to move away from the realism I was attempting to achieve in my paintings towards the graphic, more abstract work that I do now. I started out by mimicking the more established artists in order to better understand the style before I developed my own visual language.
I started doing freelance work immediately after my studies – or at least I tried to. It was lekker hard in the first year and then lekker hard in the second year as well. I’m going on year three now and it’s still lekker hard.
Through repetition, I’ve gained recognition and now I’m able to survive, maybe not always through January but for most of the year. At the end of last year, I decided it was time to start my own thing and that’s the plan for this year now, with my new studio Yay Abe. It’s been the strangest thing though, people are always saying “We want to work with Russell,” not realising that the studio is still me.
Has it been hard to progress as a designer of colour?
In my experience of working in a lot of studios, I’ve always been the token coloured guy. As a person of colour, there’s always a lower expectation placed on the standard of your work. The thing is that they don’t realise they’re stereotyping and pigeonholing you. I’ve had good times and bad times at different studios and it isn’t entirely their fault; I think the cause of the problem is that there hasn’t been enough opportunities and recognition in the industry for people of colour.
How did the Design Indaba Emerging Creatives program help your career?
It was a great experience in terms of the exposure it gave me. I was in college, but I was in the same crowd as all the leaders of the industry. Meeting these incredible people from all over the country, some that I had never even heard of, instantly elevated my standards.
I remember seeing people like Daniel Ting Chong, Justin Poulter and Bruce McKay walk past and just freaking out. I was 20 at the time, only in my second year at college. It was a nice way of humanising these people I looked up to, as I had previously only seen their work online. I can’t remember who it was but one day someone saw my nervousness and said: “Russell, chill out! We’re all peers. Everyone here is just a human being.”
If anything, it was invaluable exposure and a catalyst in kickstarting things. It gave me a good perception of what the industry is actually like and where my career was headed. It also helped in a monetary sense, as I started selling prints – which I had never done before. That helped me to understand and realise that I can make a living from my talent. I don’t sell prints anymore though, it’s a tough market that isn’t as thriving as it is abroad.
It also basically built my network, which came in handy when I began freelancing.
What are your thoughts on corporate/commissioned work versus personal creations?
I hate to say that money is everything, but at the end of the day, I do chase the corporate projects. The crappy part about that is that you don’t get to focus on your personal work and it starts to fall away completely. Right now, I’m only creating when the brief comes. It’s sad to say, but when there’s no brief it feels like I’m out of touch, which sucks.
It’s a weird dichotomy because the one feeds the other; it gets tricky. You’ll do a corporate job and get paid, but it’s the personal projects that bring in more work because people see it and realise it’s your actual voice. I’d like to get paid for my personal things, that are not art-directed, but nobody’s willing to put money into that just yet.
If you look at Kanye West’s interviews, he doesn’t negotiate – he has the money to afford that freedom. Whatever he says needs to happen. Often the brands he partners with will pull out because he won’t water down or compromise his vision.
I’ve worked on a project for a brand, hired out a studio and sat there creating this work which everyone thought was dope. The creative team liked what I did but the corporate heads weren’t happy because it wasn’t branded enough. I then had to create something new in two days. I still liked what I eventually created but it wasn’t my original idea.
What annoys you most about the industry?
My pet peeve would be the people behind it. It becomes a status thing, like walking into Yours Truly and ten people come up to me calling themselves illustrators, designers and art directors – which is cool, but then also, produce work, man! Everyone just talks after doing one thing and then they speak about who they know. It’s so ego-driven. Social media also has been a cause for this, you have all these “influencers” or “tastemakers”. I often meet these people at events who call themselves designers and creative directors, but all they can show me is an Instagram account. I suppose it may be good and it may just be me being a salty guy.
We are living in a society now where Instagram is your life story, it’s like “This is me and this is what I’ve done.” But it isn’t really your life.
Exactly, it’s precisely that. Start creating work in the real world. I do digital illustration but when you’re posting doodles it just feels better, like a quick picture in a book – that’s real. It’s the same thing with doing digital art and printing it; does it really exist? The internet is real, don’t get me wrong, I do like it. Though, my most favourite projects are things that weren’t just online or printed. I did a job for Redbull, the Amapiko Film Festival visuals and that ended up on a wall in Soweto and although the project is done, the artwork is still there four months later and people are still interacting with it.
The real-world aspect of it makes it more tangible.
Yes, exactly! At the same time, I’m not disregarding the internet. I love it, I can’t be that old guy always saying that the internet is ruining everything. You must progress with the times. Another thing that gets under my skin about design, from my perspective at least, is getting art directed too heavily. I’m being pulled in to help these companies out, but when I do what I think works it gets watered down completely. I understand that I’m not coming in as an artist, otherwise, I would be a fine artist. It may be more prevalent in Cape Town or South Africa where we should be putting more trust in the designers and illustrators. When I look at guys overseas like Josh Cochran where he gets given a billboard and told to paint on it, he just does whatever he wants and the brand just goes with it. People are a bit more scared here.
I feel that abroad it’s more audience-driven, whereas here it’s driven by a boardroom. Our creatives are too hindered by all these hidden agendas.
That’s the thing, you either roll with it and navigate those systems or become a fine artist and paint flowers. It’s a tough one. I saw my sketchbooks the other day and it was so amazing, I remember the days I used to draw for fun. When you aren’t being so strictly directed, your work is far more honest.
What feeds your creativity?
The briefs. Just kidding! For me – and this sounds incredibly cheesy – it’s meeting people, so I try and make new connections all the time. When the work I do is people-driven or revolves around people, then it almost lives, but when it’s very corporate it’s not like that. The testament to that is me posting it online and saying “Hey, look at this!” and people don’t engage so you don’t see the hearts, and we all love the hearts, but when it’s about people then the hearts come flooding in. When the work is engaging and I can have fun with it people are far more receptive to it.
Someone once gave me some advice that may not be that realistic but I understand and see it now. I was told that when the job isn’t fun anymore I should pull out. I tried it once, I was working on a project and it wasn’t working out, I just ejected myself and really felt like I saved myself from it. I always try to have fun with a project and I tell my clients that I would like to enjoy what I’m doing, it creates such a different energy.
I’m sure the clients are then also more relaxed with briefs.
They are because they now see my excitement and, in turn, become more excited themselves and it becomes such a great working relationship which makes for a good flow.
What I’m sensing is that real world element poking its head out again.
Exactly, there’s no back and forth emailing; it’s far more personal and it builds a real relationship.
There is this challenge of creating a visual language and applying it throughout my work. Whether it’s a couch or an illustration, I want people to look at whatever I’ve touched and immediately say “Russell or Yay Abe worked on that.”
My goal for this year is to help others out, to open the door for more young designers of colour. I still don’t think that a lot of people of colour are taken seriously, I’m levelling the playing field, or at least trying to.