Color Matters: A Conversation with Thandiwe Tshabalala

Illustration of speakers at TEDx Johannesburg 2014 by Thandiwe Tshabalala

THANDIWE TSHABALALA is a South African freelance illustrator and graphic designer based in Cape Town. If you’re a fan of African digital designers, you’ve surely come across her poppy, bright and brilliant illustrations.

She’s a master at layers. The drawings, vibrant colors and to-the-point statements all working in concert and compelling you to stare, reflect and imagine something new. Thandiwe embeds her art in the political moment – whether it’s addressing how a woman makes life each day despite resource-strapped conditions, sexual molestation and psychological trauma, or South Africa’s particular struggle against xenophobia. The art is meant to cause a confrontation, a simmering encounter, a shift in perception and attitude.

We hooked up with Thandiwe to find out more about her journey into illustration, her hometown beginnings and her love for the beautiful struggle of Black peoples.



ADA: What was your childhood like?

TT: I had a pretty normal childhood. I was never the black sheep of the family, however, I was definitely some sort of outcast in my neighborhood. Still am.


ADA: What are some of your earliest memories?

TT: Dancing to Sarafina’s “Our Father” song or Mango Groove. Dancing was a BIG THING growing up. We might have not known the term “choreographer” but I think all of us were. I always reminisce about those days.


ADA: Where in South Africa did you grow up and how different is it from other parts of the country?

TT: I grew up in Langa, Cape Town. It’s where the legendary Brenda Fassie is from. Cape Town has the craziest weather – ever. You can experience all four seasons at once in one day. We have Robben Island, a world heritage site, which is where most freedom fighters were imprisoned including Mandela. I haven’t travelled to places like Limpopo or Freestate, so it’s kinda hard to compare. There are so many amazing places to visit in this city you can never run out of things to do or checkout.



ADA: At what point did you discover art? Did you have an encounter that led you to be an artist?

TT: I started drawing from a young age. It began when our TV at home stopped functioning. There were these books with drawings in them, so what I did was try to emulate what I saw on the pages.

I enjoyed it and it felt so natural. I always felt confident and happy when I drew. It became a hobby of mine, plus it gave me the opportunity to show off.

There was a woman that used to come over to my house. She would always tell me that my work would end up in an art gallery. Knowing that this hobby of mine could eventually turn into a career kept me motivated.


ADA: How is South Africa perceived through art?

TT: We have brave and honest artists here. Plus we are doing our best to tell our stories/share ideas in an authentic manner in which people can relate to. The only South African creatives I have issues with are those who work in the advertising industry. Not all of them, but most of them. I’m not sure about those people…



ADA: Your work as an illustrator is dope. How has it received so far?

TT: Thank you. So far the response has been great. I receive emails every now and then, from people telling me that they love a certain illustration, or how they can relate to a certain piece. I think it’s provocative. It gets people going…


ADA: Is there a theme that you keep going back to? If so, why?

TT: I don’t know what my subject matter will be next year or when I turn 50 years old, but for now, I celebrate myself as a Black woman. I celebrate Black People, our struggles, Spirit and our Beauty. I’m inspired by my country and this continent called Africa.



ADA: Does your work speak to apartheid or are people resistant to that kind of art?

TT: There are certain people in this country that will tell you, “It’s been 21 years, apartheid doesn’t exist anymore. Stop blaming apartheid for your issues.” Some people are dismissive about that subject. I wouldn’t mind speaking about it, but I would hate to preach to the choir. I’m all about action. If I’m talking about something it must inspire change.


ADA: How has the current political system affected art expression in South Africa? Are artists more vocal or is there self-censorship to keep jobs?

TT: Via social media platforms, people are vocal and I love it. I can only speak for myself. When I was employed, I was quiet about issues but the moment I became a freelancer, I just didn’t give a damn. I tweet what I like. I call a spade a spade.



ADA: How would you describe the art scene in South Africa and are there enough opportunities for Black artists?

TT: I’m not sure how to describe it (I’m such an indoor girl). However S.A. creatives are brilliant. When I visit certain websites and see what people are doing I’m always amazed and inspired. We are diverse, brave and fierce. I think there are enough opportunities for Black artists out there.

All illustrations in this article are by Thandiwe Tshabalala.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.