Visual artist Tishk Barzanji on taking risks, adding value to the community, and how persistence changed his worldview

If your younger self could see you now, what would they think of the person they've become? That's the question celebrated London-based illustrator Tishk Barzanji pondered at the Barbican last week as part of The Balvenie's 'The Makers Project'.

The live event saw Tishk pen and perform a letter to his younger self, revealing untold stories about his creative journey, where he finds inspiration, and the trials and tribulations he's encountered on the way.

Tishk is well-placed to discuss the unique career paths and opportunities offered to people in the creative industry. Originally from Iraq, Tishk moved to London in 1997 before studying Fine Art at Richmond-upon-Thames College, then physics at Loughborough University. He would continue to balance the two disciplines before ultimately deciding to step back from his aspirations of working at NASA and redirecting what he had learnt from science into what he enjoyed.

It's a choice that paid off. Tishk's art, which is concerned with human interactions, living spaces and deconstruction, has seen him work with Rockefeller, New York Times, V&A museum, and Somerset House, to name but a few of his many clients. We talked to Tishk to hear more about his journey and what creators need to keep in mind when overcoming struggles.

When did you first start illustrating, and why?

My journey into creating was unexpected, I was studying Physics at university, and a short illness I had back in 2015 meant I spent a few months at home. So, I used that time to take photos and create artwork. 2016 is when I really started to take it more seriously.

The Makers Project event is all about persistence and determination, but what have you found to be the biggest boost as a creator?

It's given me a new way of seeing life and the physical world. The Balvenie's new campaign is about inspiring a new generation of makers by unpacking the uniquely human elements that elevate the great to exceptional. I've also been lucky to work with some great creators, which I've learnt a lot from. Most importantly, being a creator has given me an outlet to express myself in ways I can't say in words.

Who were your main artistic inspirations as a child? And how did they shape your work?

Growing up, I enjoyed the work of Edward Hopper and Rene Magritte. I was interested in the way they used space and light. The juxtaposition of the characters was also interesting.

The pandemic affected artists in many different ways. How did it impact your work?

For me, it was great. I felt like I had more time to work and think. I was able to create a lot more work and engage with other creatives. I didn't feel different to my usual routine before the pandemic. Though, it has affected me trying to get back to normality now.

Could you tell us about your event with Michael Kiwanuka?

Michael and I will be reading out a letter that we have both penned to our younger selves at The Barbican this October, speaking about our creative journeys and what's inspired us along the way, ultimately motivating future and current makers. The event will also have other creators from various fields speaking on the night, alongside The Balvenie's legendary Malt Master David C. Stewart MBE. The evening is part of The Balvenie's Makers Project, exploring craftsmanship and creativity and the intrinsic values and process of making as a whole. We will also be joining forces again in 2022, so stay tuned for more to come on that.

To have the courage to show a part of your mind is something you should celebrate.

How did moving to London inspire you?

The mixture of culture and diversity was hugely influential in my work. I spent my early years in North London, where I was inspired by everything from the street artists to the local shops and street food in the markets. That made me curious about the craftsmanship in its entirety and how I can add value to the community. I played a lot around the neighbourhood, and I wanted to one day tell their story somehow.

What has been your biggest struggle to date as an artist, and how did you overcome it?

I believe finding ways to evolve my work and, at the same time, staying authentic to my craft is the biggest struggle. Sometimes finding the motivation to keep going can be difficult, and that's when I usually take a break and do something completely different, such as going out and studying people who inspire me. Finally, finding time to work on personal projects while working on commissions is something I also still struggle with. Time management is key to keeping the pressure off.

Did studying physics help to take your art in new directions? And if so, how?

Physics just showed me how to see the world differently. Before, my ideas were very singular. Now I see things in multiple ways. I logically approached my work but always took away those boundaries and let it flow. From a technical perspective, I methodically built details, like an equation.

If you could offer one piece of advice to struggling artists, what would it be?

Try out new things even if you don't like them or are not sure about them. Build a network of like-minded people and create things you enjoy. And always remember to take risks. Also, if you are already creating, you're already in the right direction. To have the courage to show a part of your mind is something you should celebrate. Not everyone can do that.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

I enjoy every moment of creating. Every new project, I feel grateful to be part of. So I would say, just to be able to create for a living is something I cherish. It's always fun when you see your work in public that you've put a lot of hard work into.

What do you think your younger self would say if they could see you now?

I think he would be very happy and fascinated by how the journey has changed over time. And he would say, "you've come a long way, take time to enjoy the small things, and help as many people as you can".


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