Thomas Trevor (Tommy) Motswai was born on 27 May 1963 in Johannesburg. Although he was born deaf he ultimately became a prolific and successful artist portraying the world around him on paper with pastels. In his own words, “I like to draw happy people doing ordinary things like travelling on buses, talking and singing, in places I know well, like Soweto.”
Due to his disability Motswai attended Kutlwanong School for the Deaf in Rustenburg from 1968 to 1979. A teacher recalls, while the children were working in the garden at school, she realised that Motswai was missing. She eventually found him sitting on the steps behind a classroom, drawing. As he did this frequently she addressed him about it and he replied in sign language that he wanted to become an artist. She outlined the financial difficulties and encouraged him instead to become a plumber, and to do art as a hobby.
Motswai grew up in Soweto with his parents and younger brother, who were all able to hear. Before he started school he could not speak and resorted to drawing pictures in the sand to communicate. It was his little brother who gave him his first exercise book and pencil, which he used to draw.