Isaac Zavale Portraits capturing the resilience of Johannesburg’s citizens

A painting of a street corner, with people hanging out and chatting in front of walls covered in signs that read High Point Kitchen and Relax Barber Shop
WordsAlia Wilhelm

Mozambican artist Isaac Zavale doesn’t focus on the extraordinary in his art, but on the everyday. His portraits capture the informal traders, dealers and drivers of the city of Johannesburg. As Zavale explains to writer Alia Wilhelm, it’s normal for Black people to be affected by issues of unemployment, feeling rejected by various systems and still needing a way to survive. Here, he explores why he picks these subjects for his art and why he continues to paint them, despite now residing in Germany.

Isaac Zavale’s paintings cast a vibrant spotlight on the streetwise citizens of Johannesburg. “I’m interested in portraying the grunge and the dirt of the city, how people still take it—even though it’s decaying—and give it life and character,” the artist says. “These streets made me, and they carry the history of South Africa.” 

Zavale’s paintings, which focus on Johannesburg’s informal traders, dealers and drivers, are portraits of resilience. “It’s very normal for most Black people to be affected by the challenges of unemployment,” Zavale says. “They can’t get into the system. They aren’t trained or educated. They can’t get formal trading certificates or approval papers, and that brings in crime, since they need a means to survive.” (This was recently echoed by the New York Times, which noted that the country’s unemployment rate—indeed higher among Black people—has given rise to “a hustle culture that sends many South Africans to the streets…in search of work”).

A painting depicting a busy street in Johannesburg. The area is bustling with people walking in various directions, with food vendors and cars dotted around. A taxi rank and a butcher sit on the far side of the street.
Gold rush

The concept of public space interests Zavale since it relates to ideas of ownership and access, both of which are inextricably linked to race, especially in South Africa. During Apartheid, when Joburg’s Central Business District belonged exclusively to white people, sirens wailed through the streets every night, mandating that workers of color return to their townships until morning. “Now things have changed, and Black people can access the city,” Isaac explains. “They come from the townships, from Zimbabwe or Mozambique, and they’re like, ‘You know what? I’m going to make it. Oh, I found a shopping trolley? I’m going to set up a mobile veggie shop.’”

Such opportunists can be seen in his painting “Gold rush”, which brings to life the city’s Noord Taxi Rank, teeming with weavers, beaders, taxi drivers, recyclers and street vendors. The artwork’s title references that Johannesburg was once a gold reef—it still goes by the nickname “The City of Gold”—with traders lining its streets. “Now the gold is gone,” says Zavale. “But Black people are still here, using the space as a trading spot, hustling in a different way: selling fruits and vegetables, owning a car wash or hair salon or selling cigarettes in a mobile kiosk on the street.”

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A painting depicting a pavement in Johannesburg. A supermarket can be seen in the background, and in the foreground, men walk along the pavement, one of them pushing a trolley filled with items.
Hand of God

Though his paintings are specific to Johannesburg, Zavale thinks of his work as a visual record of the crossroads at which the whole continent now finds itself. “I’m trying to show that we’ve been affected by Eurocentric ways of thinking: our dress, our beliefs, what we perceive as success,” he explains. “I feel like our culture is fading, becoming extinct. But we still have our own Afrocentric ways, and that brings a challenge to our people, in terms of how to fit in.” 

As a Mozambican-born South African—Zavale and his family moved to the East Rand in 1989 to escape the Mozambican Civil War—he is sometimes confronted by xenophobia in the very place he calls home. “It’s good because it makes me look at South Africa in a real way, the same way I present it in my work. Maybe that’s seeing it as an outsider, but also, who is really an insider in South Africa? There are so many cultures that influence our public spaces, because there are so many countries that shaped our country post-Apartheid, making it what it is today,” Zavale says.

A poster depicting a leaflet from Johannesburg. In the main picture, a woman stands on a bustling street, and the text reads "Mamshangan - "Roasted Corn", with the price of the corn listed in the corner
Mam Shangan

Since he is aware that xenophobia is ever-present in South Africa, Zavale makes a point of including foreigners in his work. “I portray cultures that are looked down on,” he says. His painting “Mam Shangan” shows a “Shangaan” woman—someone who speaks the dominant language of Mozambique—selling roasted corn on the street. “‘Shangaan’ is a put-down, and [the character] is confronted by this every day,” Zavale says. Her forthright gaze is an expression of vigilance, he explains. “She has to secure her space. She witnesses people getting robbed, and she can’t be a victim.”

Zavale works from reference images, sketching directly onto the canvas before moving on to acrylic paint. The streets of the city are always his starting point. “I walk around, taking photos and storing memories, and then I change certain elements,” he says, describing how he incorporated a red tour bus into one of his paintings as a symbol for white tourists looking out at the “animals” of Johannesburg as though on safari. These embellishments are what make his work political, he says, and if you don’t look closely, you might miss them. His characters—or protagonists—are usually based on references, too, though he often incorporates Eurocentric details into their clothing or tweaks their expressions.

A poster depicting a poater set in Johannesburg. In the main picture, two men stand on the street, glass bottles on the floor in front of them.

Two years ago, Zavale moved to Berlin. There, public space is negotiated very differently than it is in Johannesburg, where strangers often strike up spontaneous conversations on the street, a type of connection not as readily available in Germany. “Here, everyone has a therapist. From what I understand, sometimes you have to let your problems out to someone you don’t know,” he explains. “But in South Africa, you just sit and talk to another passenger on public transport, or maybe you take a taxi home and you tell the driver, ‘I had a shitty day today and this is what happened.’ And then it gets easier, you know, and it kind of calms you down. But here that’s very hard.” 

Despite residing in Germany, Zavale plans to keep painting his home city, which he feels is constantly evolving. “Johannesburg is a place where Black and white people interact easily. Now I feel like people are becoming more open to sharing about their cultures. It’s easier for both sides to understand each other more deeply,” he says. Plus, he finds that there is beauty in difference, something his time in Germany has underscored. “I consider that it’s beautiful to get to know other cultures, so we don’t look at things from just one side. If you get exposed to that and you understand it and you accept it as it is—the world is crazy—it becomes fun.”