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Phathu Nembilwi talks to Industrie Africa about her collaborations with the designer and having her work shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By Lindsay Samson

Jul 29, 2022

Founder and Creative Director of Phathu Designs, Phathu Nembilwi is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator who draws inspiration from her own life and the rich and colorful cultures in South Africa to create drawings that are brimming with joy and optimism. She creates these illustrations digitally; her energetic line work, mesmerizing motifs, and quirky composition bringing vibrancy and movement to every image. A frequent collaborator of Thebe Magugu, Nembilwi has become well known for her work with the South African fashion designer, particularly with regards to their collaboration on the “Girl Seeks Girl” dress, which was acquired by the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2021 for their permanent collection. Selected by the institute “to preserve it as an example of outstanding contemporary design”, the illustrated garment formed a part of Magugu’s FW '18 HOME ECONOMICS collection and according to the designer was a timeless statement on solidarity amongst women in the face of continued gender-based violence.

Illustrator, Phathu Nembilwi. Photo: Over Artist Showcase.

 “This dress has always been incredibly special to me,” he said on Instagram. “[Nembilwi’s illustration] signifies that women really need one another now more than ever because there is clearly a war that rages against them.”

Poignant and timely, the message was vividly asserted through Nembilwi’s illustration, one that emblazoned the dress’s Gypsy-style crepe form. Depicting a woman leaning into the comforting arms of another, the graphic is at once an expression of vulnerability and strength and offers a movingly creative depiction of the solidarity so necessary among women. Since this first collaboration, Magugu and Nembilwi have reunited for the designer’s Heritage collection—a range of pieces inspired by each of South Africa’s eight prominent ethnic groups: Zulu, Tswana, Swati, Venda, Pedi, Xhosa, Tsonga, and Sotho.

Employing bold colors and playful silhouettes, the Limpopo-born, Johannesburg-based Nembilwi’s digitally created work reflects the diversity of women through bright, expressive, and playful scenes. Her striking illustrations are a window into the various experiences of womanhood, and effectively capture the meaningful moments from which friendships and sisterhood arise. Featuring imagery of florals, fruits, animals, nature, and female figures engaged in everything from languidly lounging in the sun, to getting their hair done; Nembilwi’s work is a smorgasbord of energetic, colorful, and diverse renditions of the world through her eyes.

Nembilwi sat down with Industrie Africa to shed light on her background, singular style, and the power of illustration.

Illustration for Thebe Magugu Heritage Dress by Phathu Nembilwi. Photo: via @thebemagugu.

Illustration by Phathu Nembilwi. Photo: Phathu Designs.

Illustration by Phathu Nembilwi. Photo: Phathu Designs.

How did you get into graphic design and illustration?

I’m originally from Limpopo so I grew up and was raised in Venda, where I graduated high school. Then I moved to Pretoria to study Graphic Design at Tshwane University of Technology. I was drawn to illustration because it gave me a lot of freedom to be creative. There were no rules. As time went by, I decided to open an Instagram account for my work where I started posting some little drawings, and from there it just sort of picked up.

How would you describe your illustrations?

I can say my illustrations are female-based. In my life, a lot of my most positive influences have been women—my granny, my mum, my sisters, and other women around the world—and I feel like their stories have never been completely told. I feel like a female perspective has always been lacking. And not just the hard or painful stories, but the fun stories—going out, taking yourself on a date, hanging out with your friends. So I wanted to tell all those stories in a fun, funky, and African way. 

What was the industry like when you got your start?

When I started there weren’t really a lot of black women illustrators so there wasn’t really anybody I could look to. It seemed like such a closed space back in the 2000s. Since then, however, things have changed so much. I’m seeing a lot of young people opening up their own platforms and expressing themselves creatively. I think it’s become a more diverse space for young artists to enter. People are a lot more open-minded, and digital art is becoming more broad and exciting.

What is your creative process like?

My work can begin as a random thought. Say, for example, I want to go to the beach, but there’s no beach in Joburg! I’ll just make it happen with my illustrations. I’ll pick up my book, sketch out an idea, transfer it to my computer, and digitally create and color it. I love seeing an idea come to life like that, and depending on how people respond I may turn it into a series.

Vatsonga Heritage Dress by Thebe Magugu. Photo: via @thebemagugu.

Vhavenda Heritage Dress by Thebe Magugu. Photo: via @thebemagugu.

Bapedi Heritage Dress by Thebe Magugu. Photo: via @thebemagugu.

What do you think the power of illustration is?

I think it’s being able to create something that people can connect to—work that really affects someone else. That’s something that’s always been important to me. I want people to be able to see themselves in the work I make; whether it’s through the tones I use for skin colors, or the specific characters I create. I want people who engage with it to feel included.

How did your first collaboration with Thebe Magugu come about?

I was just starting out as an illustrator. I was doing some digital work and he contacted me after seeing an illustration I made of two women sitting on a bench. He sent me an email telling me he had this amazing idea and that I was the perfect person for it. Thebe has brilliant ideas. He sees something in my work that even I don’t see. I think our work blends really beautifully together. It’s fun! I’m lucky I have the privilege to choose what projects I want to work on. I get to work with amazing people and I get to be challenged.

Heritage Collection by Thebe Magugu. Photo: via @thebemagugu.

What’s the story behind the “Girl Seeks Girl” illustration?

It’s really about women supporting each other. Comforting each other, being there for one another, empowering one another, and keeping each other safe. And I think that’s never been more important than right now.

How did it feel to have the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquire your work?

I could have never imagined my artwork would be displayed somewhere like that! I was just so excited and so humbled. It also gave me the confidence to realize that I can really do this and grow in this world. 

You’ve also collaborated with Thebe Magugu on a newer collection. Tell us about that.

The Heritage collection is one of my favorite projects I’ve ever worked on! Each piece is based on a South African culture—Zulu, Tswana, Swati, Venda, Pedi, Xhosa, Tsonga, and Sotho. I had to do quite a bit of research for this one. I’m Venda so that was relatively easy for me but for the others, I did a lot of research to show care and respect for these cultures. What’s so fun is that I never know what I’ll see at the end of the project. I’ll just send him what I think works because he always tells me to interpret things in my own way. So it’s so exciting to see what he does with it, how he plays with it and brings it to life through his garments.

What advice would you give to young illustrators trying to make it in this industry?

I’d say that taking risks pays off. Step out of your comfort zone. Have faith in yourself and be passionate about what you’re doing, especially when you’re young. It’s okay to fail. You can fail and just pick yourself right back up, confident that you’ve learned a lesson. I think my strengths have been the willingness to learn and the desire to constantly improve so I’d definitely encourage others to do the same.