‘It’s about finding your outlet’: visual artist Tishk Barzanji on fusing art and science | The Makers Project
“It’s always a tussle between two worlds,” says British-Kurdish visual artist Tishk Barzanji, describing the underlying tensions in his work, which involves crafting distinctive landscapes and designs that feel contemporary and alluringly detailed.
There is a battle between art and science in his images that reflects his own creative journey – as well as the world he depicts. “A lot of people look and see an aesthetically pleasing piece, but there are also darker undertones in my work, with all the ideas I’m trying to convey – it’s about keeping people guessing beyond face value. It’s like a maze in my head.”
Barzanji, 31, was born in Iraq and moved to London with his family at the age of seven. His earliest memories are rooted in a sense of communal life and urban rhythms, from the Middle East (“Vivid details such as the buildings, palm trees and shadows really stuck with me”) to the busy east London neighbourhood of Dalston; these influences and atmospheres would eventually resonate through his artworks.
“My childhood made me look deeply into details,” he says. “As a kid, I was always asking questions, and I was really curious about what everyone did. I wanted to know more about people, and also add to the community. The area that I grew up in, Dalston, was very multicultural, and it had such a unique energy – you’d see street artists, builders, street food, markets, which made you want to be part of it. My parents were working hard, and I was trying to find my own lane, but also be part of a wider community – it seemed like a fine line, but that gave me a lot of conviction.”
As a child, Barzanji was drawn towards science, and was initially set on working for Nasa, before charting his own creative path. “When I was younger, the factual aspect of science gave me some satisfaction – I had so much ambition to challenge myself,” he says. “As I reached my teens, and was soaking in all the cultures around me, I started to feel more open-minded about expressing myself. Growing up, especially as a male, it can be really hard to talk about your emotions. But I think everyone is an artist – it’s just about finding your outlet.”
Barzanji continued to balance fine art and science subjects in his studies, before leaving London to study physics at Loughborough University. It was during his degree, in 2014, that he endured an unexpected debilitating health challenge (eventually diagnosed as migrainous vertigo) that also proved to be a significant turning point.
“The illness gave me a kind of realisation that there were other ways to express myself,” he says. “I thought: ‘I’m going to try to take a step back and use what I’ve learned in science, and apply that to what I really enjoy – and I can still make a difference to society.’ Those were the moments when I started to feel like I could make a positive change, and I focused on that further and further.”
This impetus also encouraged Barzanji to develop and fine-tune the details of his characteristic visual style. He immersed himself in reading – from colour theory studies to poetry, travelogues and surreal literature (citing a love of novelists including JG Ballard and Joseph Heller) – and returned to themes he’d initially explored as a younger student: traversing the city and taking photographs to document how people used various spaces at different times of the day.
In Barzanji’s designs – where his inspirations might range from brutalist architecture to the metaphysical art visionary Giorgio de Chirico, and his media would span acrylic paint to digital effects – figures would recur as deliberately anonymous silhouettes, at rest, or in recreational poses, somehow both relatable and enigmatic.
“I kind of became this observer of life – just sketching characters at the theatre, at the train station … It’s not technical, but it’s a way of thinking that really helped,” he says. “A lot of what I do is about processing how the world is changing.”
These personal studies steadily took flight, as Barzanji’s artworks earned a growing fanbase, and led to him creating visuals for international projects – from film festivals to couture fashion houses and live music events.
Now, he’s partnered with the whisky brand The Balvenie through The Makers Project, a celebration of the process of making. Exploring creativity through letter writing and the spoken word, the partnership is a coming together of shared values, Barzanji says. “I really like The Balvenie’s intricate attention to detail, and how it’s kept its strong tradition of craft over the years. I’m precise and consistent, too, so this collaboration really made sense to me.”
Both traditional and contemporary tools are key to Barzanji’s own craft. “I’ll definitely have a sketchbook with me everywhere I go. It’s like an extra ‘brain’ for me, so that I can remember moments and ideas – that’s often what starts a piece. Also, probably my phone, because I take so many photos. And space to think and disconnect, to go into your own world, is really valuable. I tend to stay up late to create – for me, it’s part of the process of being able to really engage with my work. Finding what really works for you is important.”
Barzanji is also keen to encourage anyone to follow their own creative path – at any point in their life. “My advice to anyone is to go out and meet people who inspire you,” he says. “I speak a lot about legacy, and that’s not just doing something major that everyone knows about – you could have a legacy between two people, or a community. It’s about touching something, and hopefully making a positive change.
“Try out new things, and build a network of like-minded people – and always take risks, because without them, you’re never going to find out if you’re right or wrong. Even now, I apply that to my work – and even when I look back on it now, I’m always finding something new.”
Like Barzanji, The Balvenie’s craftspeople have been pouring their hearts into their craft for decades – which is why they launched The Makers Project; to champion the process of making and inspire more makers to pursue their art. Find out more here