"I think my design style is a conglomerate of my history,” said Jaxon Hsu when #Trending asked him this week about his latest illustration work in a new book from independent feminist publishers Modjaji Books called A to Z of Amazing South African Women.
He was born in Taiwan, raised in Joburg, studied advertising in Taipei, and did his master’s degree in New York, where he was a film maker and sneaker designer, before settling in Cape Town to work in the clothing industry – and illustrate on the side. “Illustrating is my outlet,” he said.
The success of Hsu’s illustrations in the simple coffee-table book of monumental South African women is to unite his subjects’ diverse histories and achievements into a unified style – and then make them pop with colour, entrenching an iconography.
Set against bright colour backdrops, all the portraits are multilayered, in black and white, with bursts of colour from the subjects’ clothing or props. They entrench both history and popular culture, easily playing out as Andy Warhol multiples. “They’re reminiscent of the drawings I make when I’m designing sneakers, with detail and layering,” he said.
The book was initiated and written by his wife, Ambre Nicolson, and so it has been “a labour of love”.
“The challenge was to make them all look like the same style – I worked off photos and some were very small and very old – and then drew them out in vector [illustration software programs],” he said.
One of our favourites is Hsu’s illustration of rising rap star Dope Saint Jude. She exudes power and vulnerability at the same time, but her future importance is cast in stone, elevating her status and giving her the ability to hold her own among legends such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Miriam Makeba and Cissie Gool. And his Caster Semenya portrait cunningly plays with the power of the victor, offering Semenya’s huge smile.
The colour comes from the South African flag that the track star holds aloft. Semenya is a force for pride despite the controversy around her gender and sexual orientation. Whether she likes it or not, she is a national darling and Hsu’s portrait foregrounds that.