Forever Emojinal

Thulisizwe Mamba’s wavy artworks are the most

By Samora Chapman

A graphic designer, illustrator, photographer, fashionista and self-proclaimed ‘digital native’, at just 22-years-old, Thulisizwe Mamba is holding down a demanding nine-to-five at a digital marketing agency while making waves with his art.

We caught up with Sizwe at his office on lower Lilian Ngoyi Road in downtown Durban, a district that’s as much known for its factory shops as the sex workers who walk the streets here. It’s an area where commercial buildings, industry and old-style Durban homes overlap in the space between upmarket Florida Road and the metro train yard. An in-between kinda place that’s perfect for a guy caught between the worlds of art and commerce.

Tall and slender, Sizwe is always watching, always listening, and is highly receptive to the little details, quirks and trends that define those around him. Similarly he studies the internet with a voyeur’s intensity, contemplating the digital world’s significance and the effect it’s having on ‘his’ generation. It’s these powers of observation and his ability to translate them onto the page that defines Sizwe as an artist.

“My ideas normally come in the form of a word or a sentence. Like if I’m riding a taxi and I see people doing something interesting, I’ll jot down a few words. Then when I get home I’ll do a rough sketch, a doodle, scan it with my phone and send to my computer. From there I’ll go into Photoshop and ink it with the tablet. It’s a flow of ideas, an organic process, where I don’t think about the end product and instead let the idea determine the aesthetic.”

Sizwe’s blog is alive with gifs, souncloud mixes and cheeky illustrations that draw on local lingo, sex and fashion.

“My illustrations talk about Durban culture and youth culture that’s not in the mainstream. Small things that people do or say on a daily basis. I think there is a gap where black creatives are representing black lives and nobody’s documenting it at a basic level. If you look at the history books it’s always one angle. But if you think about the future generations looking back at what the youth were about in 2016, what was trending and what kids were doing, I want to create a body of work that truly reflects that. Black youth now, our identity. My work’s not timeless, it’s fixed in a time and a place.”

At first quite shy in front of the camera, Sizwe eventually loosens up and it turns out that he’s as natural at making shapes in front of the camera as he is with his pencil and pad.

Having got into drawing through music, inspired by how the deep house artists that he was listening to could set the mood for their music via the cover art that they used, it was only after Sizwe met street artist and illustrator Dragon 76 that he decided to have a go at making his own gig posters and logos for friends. Working hard at this from grade 10 Sizwe studied graphic design at the Durban University of Technology afterwards to formalize his skills.

“I think I started too early,” he laughs, “because by the time I got to first year I was so bored of school! Which is why I started freelancing. School was a bit depressing because I live for the hustle.”

Back at Sizwe’s office at Niche Digital, it’s buzzing with a photoshoot going on in a far corner and there are a bunch of other factors – like being offered a beer on our arrival – which hint at this not being your average ‘orifice’.

“I started working here part time last year, doing anything I can – graphic design, illustration, photography, corporate branding... It’s cool to have work and art pulling you in different directions. It gives you perspective. What I learn with my own work I can bring into the office and vice versa. It’s a responsive thing.”

With his art attracting the attention of some big players in the creative industry, last year Sizwe showcased his work at Design Indaba, was celebrated as House & Leisure's Rising Star and was a finalist in the BOS Design a Can Competition. He was recently commissioned to create a unique range of prints for Superbalist, too.

“I figured this was my chance to create a body of work that I’ve never done before. The work looks at digital and youth culture – Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter – as references for everything that informs the youth, ‘cos that’s where everyone’s attention is right now. The visual language on social media is emoticons – so I’ve been thinking about emojis, South African youth culture, emotions and feelings, and how I can put them all together so it makes sense.”

Sizwe’s photography is on a different tip.

"I document the city while on my daily commute using VSCO. I don’t have Instagram or Facebook. VSCO is slooooow. It’s not about instant gratification. I used to be hectic into Twitter and all of that, but as I’ve started working more I realized that as much as I need to participate in the culture, I also need some perspective. To be able to sit back and look at it rationally, and then document it. It’s important not to get too sucked in. I realize that you can waste a lot of time on social media and so I try spend more time actually living. Because that’s where I get my inspiration from.”

A few days later while we chat on WhatsApp about Sizwe being in tune with the shifting realities of the modern world, and how his artwork provides a satirical look at contemporary youth culture, I’m subjected to strings of emoticons I never even knew existed. Like Sizwe they make me smile and feel somewhat emojinal.