Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum (b. 1980) conjures up her mythical and mystical world to the sound of centuries-old church bells. The Botswana-born artist, who is celebrated for her fantastical paintings, drawings, and vivid animations, keeps a studio situated in a 15th-century building in The Hague. The history-rich building was once home to the Spanish embassy in the Netherlands and sits beside a 600-year-old church whose carillon of bells peal melodiously throughout the day.
In this anachronistic ambiance, Sunstrum spends her days working across media. In recent months, she’s been putting the finishing touches on a new exhibition at the Bloomberg SPACE at London Mithraeum (through January 13, 2024), the artist’s first solo public institutional show in the U.K. For the exhibition, which opened at the end of July, she constructed The Pavilion, an intricate wooden structure inspired by Victorian cabinets of curiosity where the artist animations are displayed, and, in other spaces, where visitors are encouraged to contemplate histories of mythology, cosmology, and scientific theories that inform her works. Sunstrum’s creations often engage the past and present in complex dialogues, as the artist pulls from family portraits as well as found imagery of Black and brown people. In creating her works, the artist often conjures Asme, an alter ego the artist began using in graduate school to play the central protagonist of her animations.
Recently, Sunstum’s works have been garnering increased attention. In addition to the show in London, her works are currently on view in Liverpool Biennial, and she will debut a yet-to-be-announced institutional installation in the fall of 2024. With so much coming together, we caught up with the artist at her studio, where she talked about why she loves erasers, the advice of Twyla Tharp, and her daily dives into the sea.
Tell us about your studio. Where is it, how did you find it, what kind of space is it, etc.?
My studio is located in the Spaansche Hof, a mixed-use building quite close to the city center in The Hague. It was built as a city palace in the late 1400s and mainly served as the Spanish Embassy until the mid-1600s. From the outside, it is quite baroque, with a very tall arched entrance and an interior courtyard garden. My studio is in the very upper part of the main building where ancient wooden support and roof beams are prominent features. There are two large skylights in the ceiling making it a very good space for drawing and painting. It is located next to a 600-year-old church with a carillon of 67 bells that chime short and long compositions that punctuate my working day every quarter hour.
Do you have studio assistants or other team members working with you? What do they do?
For the most part, things are quite solitary in my studio. I’ve not yet found a way to incorporate the support of studio assistance into my drawing and painting practice. I think I find doing things such as sanding and preparing wood panels, stretching and gessoing linen, and mixing paints and pigments to be useful focusing rituals in the studio. More recently, however, I have begun exploring architectural and theatrical interventions in the installation of my work, and I have been working with Remco Osório Lobato to design furniture, armature, and other scenographic constructions.
What’s a studio task on your agenda you’ve enjoyed lately?
I have been working on-site for a new installation opening at the London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE. The installation, titled , features a promenade of wooden cabinets designed in collaboration with Remco Osório Lobato. Making reference to Victorian cabinets of curiosity, dioramas, museum vitrines, and other 18th-century furnishings of public education, the cabinets house a selection from an archive of animations I have been making since 2007. Once the cabinets were fabricated, it was my job to finish each one with hand-drawn and bespoke elements.
What are you working on right now?
In addition to working on , I am currently developing new works for an upcoming solo exhibition at Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, South Africa. The show will open in October this year and will feature drawings and paintings on wood panels and on linen. In making this body of work I have been thinking about nations of home and homecoming read through the complexities of history, crisis, transculturality, and migration.
What tool or art supply do you enjoy working with the most, and why? Please send us a snap of it.
I think the tool that is most often in my hand in the studio is an eraser. I enjoy allowing the provisionality of drawing to be evident in my work. There is a history of the struggle, the gestural, and the performance of drawing that gets captured in each attempt at erasing, and over time I think this creates an important ground from which I build the work.
What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Is there anything you like to listen to/watch/read/look at etc. while in the studio for inspiration or as ambient culture?
I mostly work alone in the studio and generally try to keep quite a minimal environment. I think this allows me the most space to wrangle with the many references, citations, layers, and veils of information that operate in my work. I almost always have headphones in. When I’m working on a specific show or project, I am usually listening to a group of about 30 songs. I have found that I start to depend on this set of songs to maintain a certain conceptual or emotional tone across the year or so that it takes to develop a new body of work.
What is the fanciest item in your studio? The most humble?
At the moment the fanciest item in my studio is a new shop vac I invested in to properly handle the drawing and erasing dust that tends to build up in my studio. It has several very excellent filtration systems and has industrial vacuum strength. The most humble item in my studio is a rickety old wooden Ikea baby changing table that I duct-taped wheels onto and has served for years as a rolling palette. I moved with it through three studios in Canada and even had it shipped to the Netherlands when I moved here last year. It is in such a sorry-looking state that the shipping company I worked with to pack my studio nearly left it behind, mistaking it for construction debris.
Describe the space in three adjectives.
Monastic. Light-filled. Ringing.
What’s the last thing you do before you leave the studio at the end of the day (besides turning off the lights)?
I usually try to end the day by leaving myself some easy problems to solve the next day. I believe this practice came from Twyla Tharp’s beautiful book , where she describes ending your creative day with something still to finish. So once I feel I have found that stopping point, I’ll tidy up the studio—wash brushes, reorganize pencils, neaten up drawing tools, vacuum the floor, reposition the furniture, close all the blinds, etc.—a kind of ritual for preserving that focused moment of creativity in an attempt to carry it into the following day.
What do you like to do right after that?
My studio day usually ends by about 3 or 4 p.m. in the afternoon. When the weather is nice sometimes I’ll bike to the beach to meet my partner and son for a quick dive in the sea, then pedal over to the shops for dinner ingredients, and then home to the family.