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Thandiwe Tshabalala

Featured: Thandiwe Tshabalala | Striking Visual Statements

Thandiwe Tshabalala


The images that Cape Town-based, freelance illustrator and graphic designer Thandiwe Tshabalala makes explore fundamental issues facing many South Africans. Through vector lines, vibrant colours and illustrated GIFs, she provides candid glimpses into happenings in her own life, or passes comment on those affecting the world at large. Her works are equally profound whether an expression of her inner thoughts or a reaction to a global conversation. We first shared Thandiwe’s work back in 2011 when we showcased her Jane Austen book covers reimagined in an African setting. More recently we featured her ‘ABCs of Xhosa Names‘, a project which received much attention online and was one of our most viewed posts of 2014. This year Thandiwe’s ‘Flag Prophecy’ was nominated by Xolisa Dyeshana for Design Indaba’s Most Beautiful Object in SA.


We asked her a few questions and in return she gives an insightful look into how her childhood and her experience as a black woman shape her art.


Has art always been a part of your life?


In 2008, I was blessed with the opportunity to study at the Red and Yellow School of Logic and Magic (through a bursary). I’m forever grateful to one of my cousins because she’s the one that made me aware of the advert that was published in Cape Times newspaper. The Red and Yellow School was looking for creatives that came from underprivileged backgrounds. In 2007 I took a Leap Year course, the following year I was in, taking the Graphic Design and Art Direction Course. Studying Visual Communications was exciting, plus, I was intrigued by creating things digitally. I’ve always loved to draw and doodle, ever since I was a little girl. As a young girl I was always told that my work would end up in an art gallery. Not knowing much about art galleries, I thought, the idea of having my work in a “confined space” exclusive to a select few is just not on. When I was 18, I then found out about Graphic Design. I knew that it would be something I’d love to pursue as a career.


Are there specific events or things from your childhood and upbringing that have had a direct influence on your illustrations?


Definitely. Besides the illustration that went “viral”, there’s an illustration on my blog with a caption: Childhood Trauma. It pretty much gives you an idea of something that took place in my childhood. Something I’ve had to live with forever, however, it has never had the power to break my spirit. Another one is ABCs of Xhosa Names; in primary school, I had a classmate whose name was Jeffrey but didn’t look like a “Jeffrey”.


thandiwe 5


Even though you’ve said on your Tumblr, that you’ve yet to find your illustrative style, what typically makes up your subject matter?  


Well my blog is my visual diary, so I just express how I’m feeling or what I’m going through. I celebrate myself as a Black woman. I celebrate Black People, our struggles, spirit and our beauty. I’m not biased either, there are some things I just won’t tolerate, like the recent xenophobic attacks against Pakistanis and Somalis. That was devastating. There are so many things that upset me, like the raping of lesbians in this country. These are some of the things that really make me angry. I focus on the good and bad. I always ask myself: How can we better ourselves?


How do you keep yourself inspired?


I visit the library. I listen to conversations that people have in the taxis, ekoneni (at the corner), via social media and etc. Watching news networks or visiting their websites just to be updated on what’s happening in and around the world. Comedians are able to tell good jokes because they know what’s happening, as creative that’s also important. Otherwise what are you going to talk about? How are you going to be innovative if you’re in the dark? For creative inspiration the four websites I constantly visit are,, Graphic-Exchange and of course 10and5. I was taught to be a sponge. It all has to do with observing things/people, not just looking at them, but paying careful attention. The most important thing for me as a creative is to gain insight because that’s when you’re able to tell the truth. But it’s not easy


Take us through your creative process, how does an illustration come into being?


It depends, this is not always my creative process, but in most cases it goes down like this:

  • Pray
  • Convince myself to get excited about what I’m about to do
  • Cup of coffee
  • Browse through some creative sites for about 40 minutes (procrastinate)
  • Grab my pen and sketch pad (brainstorm)
  • Scan the drawings if I have to, and start designing/illustrating


Your illustrations are not just pictures, many of them have copy too- can you explain the relationship between words and images in your work?


I think it’s because I studied Art Direction as well, I don’t know. Maybe. In most cases we had to create visuals which had a headline or a slogan. Sometimes a quote or a message is more powerful when it’s incorporated with an image, and vice versa. I’m not good with words (i.e. Strapped South African Black Well-Organised Woman Essentials – yikes!), however I love blending the two together.


Xitsonga Names


How important is the relationship between art and socio-cultural issues for you?


“I feel that as creatives we have a duty to contribute to our communities using art that addresses social issues, advocates awareness and change, which can ultimately open minds to act towards making a difference.” – Sindiso Nyoni


Which of your illustrations stand out as favourites? And why?


Black Woman Essentials, is definitely my favourite because most people actually related to it and featured it on a Facebook page called “Kasi Memories”. When I read the comments on that page, I couldn’t help but smile. It seems I had made a mistake, because even men related to the illustration. People were also sharing their stories on how they used to improvise (using Rama container as Tupperware for example), and they were not ashamed. Plus it started a conversation regarding taking a deeper look at poverty. I think some people never knew how intense and frustrating it is, not to be able to afford certain things that are so simple but yet so important in our lives.


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Strapped South African Black Well-Organised Woman Essentials Strapped South African Black Well-Organised Woman Essentials


There is a lot of reference to music on your tumblr. Is there a connection for you between your art and the music you enjoy? What’s on your playlist?


For the past month I’ve been listening to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and James Blake, on repeat. However I have a lot of variety on my iTunes, from Jamiroquai to Dr. Mageu. There are some musicians that inspire with the messages found in their music, such as Amel Larrieux, Thandiswa Mazwai, Lauryn Hill and Nina Simone.


Thandiwe Tshabalala


What are some of the collaborations or projects you’d like to take on in the future? 


I’m in the process of collaborating with two creatives that I admire, I don’t want to give away too much. I don’t want to jinx it.


What are your plans for 2015?


I have many plans, but one of the things I’ve failed to do all my life is to value myself and value the importance of time, most especially time spent with the Creator. Those are the two things I’ve already started working on. In 2015 I’ll be a lot happier, work-hard and take risks. I’d love to work in an illustration agency as well, currently I’m freelancing.


More at


Portrait illustrations of speakers and performers at TEDx Johannesburg, 2014. Portrait illustrations of speakers and performers at TEDx Johannesburg, 2014. Portrait illustrations of speakers and performers at TEDx Johannesburg, 2014.


Portrait illustrations of speakers and performers at TEDx Johannesburg, 2014.


The Pussy Palace: Illustration for an article on Vanguard Magazine.


The Pussy Palace: Illustration for an article on Vanguard Magazine.


Thandiwe Tshabalala




Maya Angelou


Between 10 and 5