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Behind the print: “Bobbejaan”

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

Tammy Mackay’s prints of animals combine personal symbolism and beautifully drawn details to convey layered meaning. She is showing her new baboon print as part of her featured artist show at Greenwich Printmakers, taking inspiration from her experiences in South Africa, where she grew up.

Photopolymer etching of a seated baboon, delicately drawn, by Tammy Mackay
"Bobbejaan", photopolymer etching by Tammy Mackay

Why did you decide to make “Bobbejaan”? Your work often has a lot of symbolism and personal meaning behind it. Is this a subject that has a special meaning for you?

“Bobbejaan” is Afrikaans for baboon. The image of the baboon is a link to South Africa for me and particularly the Cape where I was born.

The chacma baboon, also known as the Cape baboon, is from the Old World monkey family. Baboons have been living in the mountainous Cape Peninsula of South Africa for far longer than the area has been a human habitat. The long and high mountain ridge used to be a good place for them. Native fynbos shrublands fed the baboons while the exposed sandstone rockery of beach cliffs and mountain crags gave them safe places to sleep and to breed. Leopards were their main predators. Early European colonists saw off the big cats, but the baboons stayed.

Now their natural habitat has changed, with more and more houses built. The once wild baboon has now become the urban baboon.

Enticed by anthropogenic food sources and encouraged by a lack of natural predators, the baboons have become increasingly bold. This has led them into conflict with humans living at the foot of Cape Town’s mountains, as they regularly raid picnics, tourist areas, cars, homes, and even people’s grocery bags as they search for easy food.

Increased conflict between baboons and people led the authorities to cull certain troops in the late 1980s. With numbers declining, thankfully culling stopped and teams of people were introduced to monitor and deter baboons.

Today, there are about 16-17 baboon troops that roam the South African Peninsula. Eleven troops of baboons are actively managed by baboon rangers. I first became familiar with baboon rangers in Simon’s Town in December 2021 when I returned for my brother’s wedding. The lovely couple got married in Simon’s Town, with wedding photos taken in the nearby mountains. The photos were taken to the sound of barking baboons and a troop of baboon rangers. Luckily, there were no close encounters with baboons.

It is, however, a reminder of our ever-changing environments and the negative impact humans have on the land and its animals.

A gallery wall of photopolymer etchings of animals by Tammy Mackay, including chicks, dodos, a bull and a baboon
Tammy Mackay's featured artist exhibition at Greenwich Printmakers, which is on until March 12

What was the process behind this print?

It started its life as a much larger drawing in pencil. Pencil can give you lovely detail, which, once printed in black or sepia, gives both detail and intensity. I have to get my drawings scanned and professionally printed on to acetate. I have learnt that the quality of the acetate is critical to the image you get. If the acetate is too dark or light, you have to start again.

The photopolymer plate I use is solar plate. The beauty with solar plate is that it is very sensitive and you are able to get wonderful detail that other photo etching processes don’t achieve (in my opinion).

Artist Tammy Mackay crouches by a drawing of a rhino, putting the finishing touches to it in pencil
Tammy working on a drawing for one of her photopolymer etchings

Can you explain the photopolymer process?

To create your plate, you have to expose the solar plate to a halftone screen (aquatint screen) on a large UV exposure unit and then do a series of test strips to work out the correct exposure of the image. You can then expose your large, final plate with what is hopefully the best exposure time. The plate is then developed in water and dried, and then exposed once more to harden the plate. The main downside with solar plate in comparison to photo etching is that if you’re not happy with your image, you have to start from scratch, so it can be expensive and time-consuming.

Photopolymer etching of a bull, side on, delicately drawn, by Tammy Mackay
"Bull", another new photopolymer etching by Tammy Mackay

What effect does the printmaking process contribute towards the finished artwork versus the original drawings, which are beautiful in their own right?

I like how the image changes when it becomes a printed image. There is a lovely intensity that you get from ink that is never present in a pencil drawing. I always have an idea of what ink colour and paper colour I will use for the final print, but it often changes during the proofing process. I thought my new baboon print would be best printed on grey, but it worked much better on soft white, and I adjusted the ink to add more umber.

Circular photopolymer print of a dodo with a chine collé background, by Tammy Mackay
"Untitled Dodo", photopolymer print with chine collé by Tammy Mackay

Your prints are so sensitively drawn and wonderfully detailed, without getting lost in that detail. How do you know when to step back and say it’s finished?

I try very hard not to overwork drawings, even though they are detailed. Stepping back is always very important, you can immediately tell if it works or needs lightening or darkening in areas. I try and work from left to right so I don’t smudge the drawing too much, but I always add the eye last. I find it helpful to create the shape of the face first before adding the eye.

What are you working on at the moment?

Ooh – not too sure. It might be the Oxford dodo!

Tammy Mackay’s featured artist show runs at the Greenwich Printmakers until March 12, and you can see her beautiful animal prints at the gallery all year round. A selection of her work is also available on our online shop. For more information, visit her artist’s page and her website.

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