Many of us labour under the impression that to study at a tertiary institution is simply to go through the set courses, do the prescribed readings and acquire the necessary qualifications. For Nontokozo Tshabalala, her time at The University of Johannesburg (UJ) was all about personal growth and self-interrogation.
Having recently graduated from UJ with an Honours in Communication Design, Nontokozo credits the 2015 #FeesMustFall movement as a political awakening of sorts which later led to investigations into her understandings Blackness, particularly within the realms of local creative arts. This would then become one of the central themes of her student work.
Here, we speak with the graphic designer about her time spent studying, her thoughts on the local design industry, and how learning to truly understand yourself is a crucial part of creating good work.
How and why did you become interested in design and illustration?
Funny story, I was never aware of the terms ‘design’ and ‘illustration’ until I hit first year in 2013. I however knew that I was into ‘drawing’ and colourful pictures so I think it was always there but I had not linked it to any word in particular. Graphic design is all about graphics (of course), and exploring all aspects of design such as photography, illustrating and so forth. I was exposed to all of them and the love grew in trying to make myself better in the field and of course competing in class. I think I only got to understand that design was a multifaceted approach to solving communication problems in a creative way a bit later on in my studies and only then, I think I became truly interested in design.
Please tell us about some of the themes and ideas that you’ve been exploring in your student work.
Credits to #FeesMustFall 2015 that woke the Black Consciousness in me. I believe I wouldn’t be the same designer if it weren’t for this movement. In the beginning of 2016 I became curious about Black bodies and Black history because it had never been taught to me in a way that made me proud to be Black instead it kept making me feel like I was this subservient being, which I definitely wasn’t willing to accept. I started exploring white privilege, Black consciousness, what Blak design could look like, why there are few black students pursuing postgrad in design (this was for theory), my self identity as a Black female graphic designer and also design education in formal education.
How did this feed into your final project? What was the concept and how did you execute it?
Well my mind was everywhere so all of the above had a place somewhere in my exhibition. However, the main theme was auto-ethnography (study of self). This was linked to my research paper which had become such an intimate and eye-opening process. With that, I wanted my exhibition to be an exploration of my mind. I wanted to show people how deep my conceptualisation had become throughout the years and how each topic I’ve looked at has intertwined itself in the understanding of my self identity as a Blak female graphic designer. I also wanted to challenge the idea of transformation within graphic design studies in the department by having 80% of my work in isiZulu. I just wanted to redefine everything, haha.
What are your thoughts on SA’s design industry? What would you like to see change?
It’s really whitewashed. It needs to be transformed. It needs to be more inclusive. There are thousands of amazing Blak creatives out there that are being exploited by an industry that needs their insight (well that’s nothing new anyway).
I also believe that agencies should be hands on when it comes to design education. We (students) know nothing about design agencies until we get to third year when we have to start looking for jobs. Why are there so few bursaries coming from design agencies? Design students all over South Africa always have one cry – “It’s so expensive”. If the design industry wants to improve, they have to invest in students (And watch my very first documentary called Blak Voices of FADA).
What has your experience as a student been like? What valuable lessons did you learn along the way?
Being a student has been the best time of my life. It practically changed it. I’ve learnt to love my Blak skin and all the excellence that comes with it. I’ve learnt to critically think about my design concepts and the choices I make executing them. I’ve also learnt to be super resourceful and most essentially I’ve learnt that marks don’t determine who you are… growth is more important.
Find more of Nontokozo’s work on her Behance.
Wanna be dazzled by more student work? Right this way.