Gwen Ansell and Judy Seidman

Op-Ed | Thami Mnyele and the joy of making art for liberation

Drawing:  Thami Mnyele, untitled, pen and ink, Gaborone, Botswana 1984

Revisiting the artist’s life and work

Last year, a young South African artist at the Ekurhuleni city Thami Mnyele Art Awards ceremony asked, plaintively: “Who was this Thami Mnyele?  We have never even seen his artwork.”  We therefore welcome the latest edition of ZAM remembering South Africa’s revolutionary artist Thami Mnyele, South Africa |The artist who was not allowed to be, (31 July, 2018), 43 years after his death.

For the same reason, though, we need to examine more deeply the assumptions underpinning this article and their implications for our culture and our country.

That title itself conveys an unfortunate narrative still dominating our art history: that Thami’s revolutionary politics damaged, frustrated, hampered and eventually ended his ability to make art.  The article states:

Growing up in apartheid South Africa …Thami Mnyele became an angry artist. Or perhaps it’s better to say that he would have fully become one, if the same apartheid and anger had not stood in the way of him developing his talents: firstly, by forcing him to choose the resistance, then by getting him riddled with bullets, along with his drawings.
Then the refrain: Thami Mnyele was an artist who could never fully be an artist.

This entrenches a persistent and damaging narrative – that art of the liberation struggle cannot count as “real” or “great” art. There are multiple variations on this, including:

-    making revolution and making art are in irreconcilable conflict – when Thami and other revolutionary artists proclaim these are one continuous process;

-    a great artist, by definition, works in splendid isolation, individual inspiration soaring over social and artistic ‘influences’ – whereas revolutionary artists create within a shared vision hammered out through intense interaction among equals;

-    art with a revolutionary message is always “propaganda”, saying nothing to our inner being. – Thami responded directly, saying that we should “… demand to know the reason for the undesirability of political propaganda. In fact our communities will restore us with the respect we have lost, the moment we utilize every form of art at our disposal” to promote our liberation struggle;   

-   what is labelled ‘revolutionary art’ consists of clichés and slogans, devoid of concern for line, form, colour or texture  -- when the revolutionary artist builds on the intensities of the art-form to shape new realities and visions;

-   and, of course, we should never even talk about artists actually being soldiers.

Sadly, much writing about Thami’s work today, including Diana Wylie’s Art and Revolution, replays this negative narrative. 

This is hardly new. Thami describes a (white) gallery director in the early 1970s warning him: “… work hard, do not let people disturb you . . . Dumile was a good artist but he messed things up for himself by associating with the politicians.”  Deeper roots derive from the early Cold War period, when cultural projects financed by Western governments and the CIA pushed the aesthetics of abstract art over social criticism.

In his seminal 1982 Observations on the State of the Contemporary Visual Arts in South Africa, Thami identifies and rejects this hegemonic narrative.

“…  the large part of the critique dwells on how the artist is less of an artist and his work mere clichés. What is subtle in this piece of comment is the deliberate avoidance of the content of the artwork: the actual meaning and intention of the work, its relation to the conditions that gave birth to it…the river of life. It is no wonder then that we came to be associated with priests or drunken madmen. Never are we looked upon as conscious and committed men and women who can carry the responsibility and the destiny of our country in our own hands.”

The Thami we knew

Thami stood at the forefront of making the art of liberation: he articulated this in cultural theory, speeches and articles; and explored it through the aesthetics and praxis of creative work. His daily life wove together the roles of artist and liberation fighter, maintaining that politics – not party politics, but the liberation of oppressed people – formed the wellspring of liberation art:

“For me as craftsman, the act of creating art should complement the act of creating shelter for my family or liberating the country for my people. This is culture.”

He quoted Sekou Toure:

“To take part in the African revolution it is not enough to write a revolutionary song; you must fashion the revolution with the people.  And if you fashion it with the people, the songs will come by themselves and of themselves.”

Yes, Thami remarked that he would have loved the luxury of a peaceful life, playing with colour, shape and line, with limitless access to paint and expensive watercolour paper.  But, he invariably continued, living like that would force him to to deny his own artistic vision. He would rather create with inspiration of the struggle, facing the hardships.

Undoubtedly, revolutionary commitments presented artistic hardships. Art-making materials, storage, and painting space were scarce. There were no galleries. Life underground carried restrictions and physical hardships. These became part of making art. Thami and others toiled to work out how to create art under conditions of struggle. They did not whine that “I can’t make art like this”, but asked, “How can we solve this creatively?” Thami incorporated into delicate ink drawings the dust blowing onto his paper through the open garage door; once, he worked blood from a cut finger into the drawing. We explored photo-silkscreen techniques using harsh midday sunlight and buckets of water rather than electric light and high-pressure pipes. All this integrated into the artwork, becoming a conscious element of style.

Dubious accounts delinking art from the struggle invariably distort the story of Thami’s life and art. So,Thami’s trajectory was not: he joined the ANC when he left South Africa, became a guerilla, and allowed his art to “morph into propaganda”. Rather, he began integrating community resistance with art at Mhloti Black Theatre in Alex, in the early ‘70s. At Johannesburg’s Ravan Press he learned printing to produce posters for the community. He left South Africa hunted by the security police.  Artmaking within the liberation movement he described as:
. . .   a workshop, a classroom, a jungle through which the people must carve out a home…  as the artist is involved with methods and materials, he is involved with himself or herself. We relearn to live again with one another.  It is the culture we mean to help create.

And the claim that “anger would still drive Mnyele for the next seven years”, depicting a sad, angry, conflicted, and frustrated man? That is not the Thami we knew. 

Thami had a wicked sense of the ridiculous about artistic pretentions. Though it was quiet laughter, he laughed a lot. While he was painting, he would sing along with a jazz LP such as John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman. He took joy in what he was doing and was fulfilled by doing it. Until he was shot in the back, he lived and created his beliefs and vision.

Thami wrote:

What does true political consciousness mean to the artist in my country? We need to clearly popularize and give dignity to the just thoughts and deeds of the people. With our brushes and paints we shall need to visualize the beauty of the country we would like our people to live in.

This joy and sense of beauty in working with and for the community is core to both his art and his belief in shared commitment and collective action towards liberation. It vibrates in colour, music and the capacity to conjure new images.  More: his work was shaped by intense and thoughtful intellectual challenge, by collective art-making that developed an aesthetic of revolutionary art, married to undoubted skill and innovation, as creative observer and draftsman.

All these together made great art.

Yes, involvement in struggle ended his creativity far too soon — but not because his commitments limited or distorted his art. He died because the Boers murdered him. SADF soldiers shot him on June 14, 1985, one of 11 killed that night. We cannot allow this vicious act to undermine and destroy everything he deliberately chose, created and achieved during his life.

Celebrate Thami’s victories

Rather, we should celebrate Thami for his contributions: pioneering aesthetics and praxis in revolutionary art; rejecting the gallery system, commodified art and its excrescences; turning down a career as ‘great artist’ to live within and for his people; and above all, the artwork that voiced his beliefs. His creativity was rooted in, and flowered around, love for his people and the struggle. He became exactly the artist he intended to be, creating the art he wanted to create: art suffused with joy in making art and revolution.

To defend and advance our culture going forward, we must honour his victories and beliefs. When a hero falls, we say: pick up the spear. And we add: pick up the paintbrush too.

Gwen Ansell (South Africa) is a writer/journalist and mediatrainer. Judy Seidman (South Africa) is a cultural worker and visual artist. At the time of Thamy Mnyele’s assassination both lived in Botswana and were members of the Medu art ensemble.