Drawn Together: Thandiwe Mlaui and S.A.’s First Women-Led Animation Studio

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It’s never been easy to break through, especially when your voice has historically been marginalized, but Black creators around the world are more determined than ever to tell their stories. And with education, tools like social media, and sheer will power, it’s becoming clearer that we are responsible for and ready to take control of our narratives by any means necessary.

Enter Thandiwe Mlaui.

The multitalented entrepreneur is the founder and CEO of Studio Yezi, the first women-led animation studio in South Africa (Johannesburg, to be exact) where she serves as producer, director and showrunner—for now. Growing up, Mlaui didn’t always see images that resonated with her, but her love of animation, particularly anime, ran deep. 

“I love the medium as a whole” Mlaui tells AURN Online. “It allows you to bend reality and to immerse into captivating stories without having to try too hard. Animation has always been a safe space for me. It was a place to escape to when I was a kid. Even as an adult, when I watch animation, it gives me a moment to relax and forget about the world. As a creator, it lets me use my imagination in ways that would be limited in live-action work. I get to play and explore with animation, and that’s what speaks to me.”

Mlaui realized that there was a lane for Afro-Anime. She experienced the usual naysayers who told her that there was no market for Black people in animation, she knew that wasn’t true based on her own interests and those of other Black people she encountered. Eventually, she honed her movie-making skills at the New York Film Academy where she earned a BFA in producing for TV and Film. But then tragedy struck when her sister passed away. Mlaui mourned, as one would, but also used her loss as the motivation she needed to launch her business last year.

“Losing my sister was devastating for me,” says Mlaui. “I never imagined living in a world without her. I didn’t know what life would look like without her. It forced me to be real with myself about my life, where I wanted to go and who I wanted to be. Her death meant that I could no longer coast through life on autopilot. She became the fire that pushed me to create and make something of myself.”

Studio Yezi’s first project will be an animated film titled Sola about a young girl who awakens her magical powers in a world where magic is forbidden. After her sister and caregiver passes away, Sola is forced to leave town in search of a magical boarding school as she is chased by magician hunters. It’s a survival story and obviously a metaphor for what can happen when you figuratively tap into your inner magic in real life.

“I hope I inspire Black and brown people in every field to be bold and loud with their talents and their gifts, “says Mlaui, who cites Jordan Peele and Misha Green as creative influences. “We won’t be represented in the ways that we want to be until we insist on it. We can’t ask the world to accept us. We have to tell the world that we are here, and we mean business. Our goal at Studio Yezi is to empower Black and brown artists on the continent and all over the world. We intend to create a home for talented and dedicated writers, illustrators, animators, and more. We intend to create a space where Black and brown artists don’t have to compromise who they really are to create the work they want to create. By using this model, we are sure that we will get the best from our creatives and also give our best.”

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