Nontokozo Tshabalala

This interview is part of the series Questioning the Notion of Neutrality.
Click here to read more about the project and to find more interviews.


Nontokozo Tshabalala is a South African born multidisciplinary artist currently living in Sweden.

Interview – video

in English

Keywords / Overview

0:31
gaining political awareness
colonial continuities in university

3:26
What does decolonizing university mean for you?

5:55
hypocrisy of Swedish institutions
self-righteousness

7:08
“nothing is neutral”
true integration

9:26
white, western institutions
destruction of identities

12:43
white institutions' refusal to change
creating other spaces

14:39
racism in class
non-intervention
white fragility

16:16
path forward
self-reflection

Interview – transcript

in English

My name is Nontokozo Tshabalala. I am a South-African Afrofuturist and multidisciplinary artist. I studied at the University of Gothenburg / did my Master's of Design there. I am also a business owner and illustrator – just putting them [the labels] all out there! And yeah, I’m one of the organizers for the Black Lives Matter protest in Gothenburg.

The process of gaining political awareness at / about university

When I started at the University of Johannesburg, I wasn‘t aware of what graphic design was. The only thing I knew about it was what was written on the prospectus. And I think more so into the third year I started to ask a bit more questions. At the same time it was “fees must fall,” which was a protest that happened in South Africa in regard to wanting free, decolonized education. I wanted to be part of it, so I was in this 50-50-game of being at school and after school at the protest meetings. So it was juggling a lot of that, but also really starting to understand the concept of decolonizing, and what that means. And actually also learning more about the history of South Africa, and the history of the Black identity within the context of racism. And finding myself super angry at how I didn’t know so much. For me, it felt like that was the point where I was like: “Whoow. Okay. There is a clear difference in what I’m studying, and why I’m studying it [now]. Like, who am I studying it for?” And from there I was just a “trouble-maker” at the school. Because I was just like: “Why don’t we study this? Why aren’t we doing this? Why aren’t we doing that?” I used my schoolwork as a protest as well. For example, there were certain criteria for writing theory papers, and I rocked up saying “I want to try this thing because it’s easier to write theoretical stuff in a way that is easy to digest and not this academic writing and stuff.” So I went with the ethnographic way of documenting theory and what not. It became more fun, and I was telling more of my story, and telling more of what I wanted to bring into the work. I guess that’s the relationship between me and the institution. And before leaving, I kind of approached them and said: “Yo, you need to figure out ways of bringing African history in terms of design and artists and all sorts of other things that have to do with identities that occupy the space in regard to design instead of just carrying on.” We’re just produci ng. Just produce, go to the companies that are going to pay you money, and that’s it. I was like: “Nope. I was not born to pay bills and die.”

What does decolonising university mean for you?

It means turning the whole thing upside down. All of it! From the statues that have been erected outside of the building, from the money how much people pay to be in an institution – the fact that it’s like another privilege to be there doesn’t sit nicely with me. It means changing the curriculum: What are we learning? What’s the context in which we’re learning? It means understanding the kind of people that exist within the space. And reflecting that within the work that’s being produced. And giving a space for those voices to be there. Because I think more than anything, it was just not being allowed a space to exist [as a Black person, for example]. Another thing would be having teachers that also reflect the classroom. Obviously design and art institutions are very exclusive in their own way, so don’t allow lots of people to be engaged in them because you have to have certain money, and certain equipment, and all of those things. So yeah, just changing the people who we see as our lecturers and the people to give the information out to us. Because representation is for me one of the most important things that I – I won’t say focus on, but – one of the most important things in my work and in what I do. I want somebody to be able to reflect themselves on what I do and what they can be, basically. So yeah: changing teachers, changing how we learn, what are we learning, who gets in, who has access to the space. If it’s a public institution, but it’s gated, then… is it really public? It’s a lot of shaky ground to be on. But literally, it would be flipping the whole thing upside down. It sounds nice, in theory, but it’s obviously a lot of work.

Here we are: debating about what does equality mean, in a space that already calls itself that. It doesn't add up

The first kind of outside perspective of Sweden that I got was from Lhola Amira 1 – they were an artist who were invited to Skövde. They did this film that said, “Breaking bread with the self-righteous” 2 or something like that – basically describing Sweden. And I was like: “Girl, this sounds a little familiar!” So when you go through their work it’s just talking about how, you know, they [Swedish people/institutions] have a certain look and feel of “We’re basically perfect and everybody else needs to learn from us” type-of-situation. And this is actually very true, because here we are, debating about what decolonization means, what does equality mean, in a space that already calls itself that. It doesn’t add up. Like, nothing adds up.

Do you think teachers can be neutral?

We can’t even be neutral as individuals. Ha! I remember telling my grandmother: You like this uncle more than the other uncle. And she got so mad. She was like: “What?! I don’t do that. I love all my children equally.” Imagine: this is somebody I look up to and I’m like “You’re the best,” but still, couldn’t keep up her game with putting everybody on the same page. So of course not that it’s not going be something that happens, but – it’s crazy to think that we could be that, you know. Nothing is neutral. What’s neutral? Somebody has to give me an example. I got this new definition of the word “integration.” It seems like they [“integration” and “neutrality”] are on the same playing field in some form of way – I’m not sure how exactly – but when I hear things like “… should make them neutral” then you’re basically talking about true integration. Which, from my understanding of what Paulo Freire says in his book, is that true integration is when all the different individuals have figured out themselves and can come to the table, and can bring 100% of themselves. So it’s not the white guy sitting at the end where it’s 100% and the black lady who still has [only] 20% and the – back home we call mixed-race people “coloured’ people – have 20%. But it actually means that we need to all have figured out what it is that we want and what we stand for, and all of these things – and then come to the table and be that. And then that would be true “neutrality,” true “integration,” a true level playing field, where everybody is accepted and understood.

There is a lot of discussion about representation, quotas etc, which doesn't at all address the histories of e.g., how indigenous knowledges were violently destroyed by western education or that the first university was actually founded by an african woman. (How) do these foundations, which today's universities are built on, show up today and continue to shape the institutions?

You’re taught in English. All your teachers are white. They all have cars. All live comfortably. All have children, but their children don’t attend the schools you’re attending. You’re learning everything about Western shapes and – just Western education, basically. But at home, you speak Zulu. At home, you are part of a family that is different from what your school space looks like. Then, from there, you’re forced to juggle the two worlds. You’re just forced to. There is no other way. Because your parents want the best for you. So this is the school you're going to go to because this is the best school that there is in town. And it doesn’t matter what you experience there, just make sure you get the best education. That's what you’re supposed to do. Racism on fleek, discrimination on fleek (“on fleek” means “on point”), all these things just happening to you. Some people were conscious of it, some people were not, but only now am I having more and more conversations about what that meant for building our identities in those spaces. So you – or me, let me not say anybody else – you end up being accustomed to [the idea that] this is the way to go, this is the way to be. This is what is supposed to guide you to the so-called best direction of which life could be lived. But along the way, you have lost connections with interacting with your family members in your home language. You’ve lost connection with what it means to be praying or practising African spirituality because that’s not even offered to you. You lose ways of understanding yourself because you’re busy being moulded and shaped into something else. So now, here I am having the opportunity to reflect, to think, to be angry, to be all of these things, and find myself within this dust. And realizing that if it took twenty years for everything that I could possibly have become and known about who I am to be destroyed – then imagine how much longer it’s going to take to dismantle that. To deconstruct that. To rethink what it means to be a person in this world. It’s one of those things that of course are going to take a long time. Of course, they are going to have to be fixed in much longer periods. But the destruction already happened. And it continues to happen.

How can we deconstruct, or even just make these underlying structures (like whiteness or white feminism) within the universities more visible in order to talk about them?

I think that it is very necessary to find ways of being more visible. But I think that – it’s not our job anymore, man. Like, it’s not for us [those affected by racism] to do that anymore. Like, we can – international students can come in and out of the institutions, create ground-breaking work, change society, do all of these things – and still not be represented, or listened to, or understood in those spaces. Because of whiteness. And what it continues to keep in place. So, I think I’ve decided that I’m going to stop cracking my head about how I, specifically, can help these institutions with figuring out their own problems. I can do my work. I have evidence, right: I’ve been able to do this, and this and this and this, this is how I did it, this is what I’ve done, here are opportunities you can engage with me on, if you don’t want to, [makes “peace” signs with both hands] I’m out. That institution can stay the same if it wants to. But when I come into those spaces I want to challenge them with the work that I do, challenge them with my thinking, challenge them all the time, until the point where it’s like, okay, we kind of maybe have to do something. And if they chose not to do it, it shouldn’t be my job anymore. And that’s why we talk about creating other spaces, creating a whole new way of being. I think for me, it’s very important that I don’t have to fight to exist in these spaces. I shouldn’t. And I don’t have to.

Universities are sometimes seen as a space where any idea should be allowed to be discussed. Which of course also makes space for dehumanizing content like reproducing racism. what position would you take in the question of how much “controversy” teachers should allow? who is the university there for and what discourses should universities hold (no) space for?

There was one guy in my group, who showed up and his whole idea was very much “I am the graphic designer who’s coming to change the world for you, dear Chinese restaurants. I’m going to tell you what good design is, I’m going to tell you what you’re going to do with the space, and it’s going to be glorious.” And I was listening to this guy and thinking: “How is everybody so calm? Like – how are you so calm listening to his nonsense?!” And the lecturer is [mainly] trying to “keep the peace,” which is what the Swedish school environment likes to do: “keep the peace, don’t fight too much, lagom 3.” Imagine if that situation was, “Ugh, before you carry on, you have to check your male white privilege” and everybody in the class heard that. Imagine the change in which we would all be interacting with each other! But then already, just doing that is throwing a dime at somebody. It’s like [makes sounds and gestures of shooting around]. It’s [seen as] like, you know, hard in itself. But imagine if that was the situation. That was a tough situation to have to be in and to deal with. And I never even got to a place where I had spoken about it because there wasn’t an opportunity to do it.

We talked a lot about what a long transformation process is needed. Do you have some things that teachers and people in positions of power could do starting tomorrow to start moving in the right direction?

[Pretends to fall off the chair in slow motion] FIRSTLY: CHECK YOURSELF! That’s number one on the list. [She puts her head in her hands and shakes her head] Check. Yourself. You know, like we talk about, “Oh, over there it’s problematic, over there is problematic [looking somewhere far away]”… YOU, as the person, also you need to check yourself! Number one is literally just, as individuals, we need to check ourselves. We are the problem. It’s not a fluffy institution in the middle of certain somewhere. We. Are. The. Problem. And what are we changing about ourselves? Secondly, after checking yourself: how much of the harmful things you existed in do you continue to bring into spaces of change? How much of that nonsense are you bringing into spaces where change is supposed to happen, and [therefore] ultimately, hindering it? Check that. And then… number three: allow others to help you figure out a way forward. Ask people who know! There’s a saying in Zulu that says: 'Indlela ibuzwa kwaba phambili' which means: the path, or the road, ahead is asked from those who are in front. Right? So you at the back, you not gonna know what’s happening in front. So why are you trying to guess? Ask the people in front what is happening, and they will tell you! If you don’t know: ASK! Those are my three things. Check yourself, check what you’re adding to these spaces, ask if you don’t know. That’s it.


  1. Lhola Amira's bio 

  2. Short description of the film 

  3. 'lagom' is a Swedish word (and some say “philosophy”) that translates approximately to “just the right amount', 'neither too little nor too much”, “in moderation” or “in the middle”. 

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