Embracing the Darkness: Seth Pimentel’s Journey to Artistic Freedom

By Jamie Matroos

For South African illustrator Seth Pimentel, known as African Ginger, art served as an early form of therapy. By drawing, he found he could unpack trauma and feelings he was not yet ready to speak aloud.

Pimentel finds his work to be a form of therapy—and hopes that it helps others who are struggling with depression or mental illness. 

“At the time—four, five, six years ago—I was in a very weird space in my life,” says Pimentel, now 23 and based in Johannesburg. “I was dealing with a lot of past trauma. I didn’t speak to anybody about it; I was a very internal person. I never went out. I never hung out with friends. I never did anything but draw. That was my way of escaping that overwhelming feeling of mental illness.”

During high school, he developed a therapeutic ritual to help deal with the dark thoughts. At the end of each year, he would gather the hundreds of illustrations and doodles he had created, and set every page on fire. “I would just burn it all as a kind of overcoming of these obstacles...starting the chapter anew,” he recalls.

Today, Pimentel works as a freelance illustrator and is more open about his challenges. He uses his personal work to reach people similarly struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, to show them they’re not alone. But finding the confidence to share his vision as an artist took time—and a supportive audience on Instagram.

That audience didn’t show up right away, however. When Pimentel first began posting his work on Instagram, his creations reflected the inner workings of a troubled but deeply sensitive mind. “People were like, ‘Wow this is cool, but it’s dark. It’s scary.’ That stopped me from creating what I wanted to create. I started creating more aesthetic stuff with bright colors and animated work.”

At the time, Pimentel was studying at South Africa’s National School of the Arts. His early work was line-based and colorful, drawing on the organic lines and textural applications he’d been taught and respected. But he wanted to create something different.

“I tried to figure out how I could convey emotion through brushstrokes,” he says. He began creating his own custom brushes in Adobe Photoshop, as well as sharing and downloading brushes from friends. He incorporated people in his work, using texture brushes to layer tones instead of traditional line sketching. “My style went from this happy-go-lucky approach to more of a weird, hyper-real illustrative style,” he explains.

As his style developed, so did the number of Instagram followers who appreciated his dark and edgy vision. The growing positive response finally encouraged him to throw caution to the wind and fully explore the darkest recesses of his mind, turning those feelings into art. “My Instagram is just passion projects. There is no client work. It’s all me,” he says.

His work is filled with pop culture influences such as the music of Odd Future and Tyler, the Creator. Describing himself as a person who lives wearing headphones, Pimentel often finds inspiration in a piano chord, lyric, or scene.

Pimentel’s recent series of mythological creatures was initially inspired by an episode of Love, Death & Robots that featured a huli jing, a mythological fox-like creature that takes on a human form.

Pimentel’s series of mythological creatures includes the fox-like huli jng from Chinese mythology and the Aztec god Xolotl.

In the series, Pimentel layers illustrations of the mysterious and unsettling creatures over human figures, suggesting a more sinister, primal nature under the calm exterior. In one, a gangster wears a mask of Xolotl, a dog-headed god from Aztec lore who guides the dead to the underworld. The effect is a juxtaposition of lore, tradition, and modern fear.

“No matter how grotesque the illustration of a cat or a dog is, it will still be perceived as non-threatening,” explains Pimentel. “But as soon as it’s human, it kind of moves into this realm of actualized fear. It’s so real because we’ve all been hurt by another human.”

Click to watch as Pimentel uses Photoshop brushes to create one of the images in his mythology series—in this case, a bultungin, a hyena that can take human form, from North African folklore.

As for the actual creation of his work, Pimentel’s inherent rebellious nature informs his process. The artist takes a fluid approach, going from paper to computer and back as his mood dictates.

“It’s a back-and-forth process of adding line and tone and then taking that away,” says Pimentel. “Sometimes I print out the same piece, take elements out of it, scan it back in, and then fill in those gaps—just kind of playing with 2D and 3D spaces. You have more control on paper. There’s so much more you can do.”

Since taking this journey on Instagram, Pimentel has become more and more vocal about mental health issues in the art community, seeking to create a safe space for expression on his own profile.

“I started using that as a tool to speak to people about it. I’m not saying you’ll be fine or anything, but it’s like ‘I’m with you,’” he says. “There is a sense of hope from it. But also, don’t let it consume you.”

June 25, 2019