In living colour

Thokozani Mthiyane’s name may not be familiar in Johannesburg’s mainstream arts and culture scene, but his enormous serpentine dreadlocks certainly are.

By day Mthiyani, also known as “TK”, humbly mans the front counter at the Rosebank Mall Exclusive Books, where customers recognise him as the big friendly “Rasta” behind the till.

When Fanatics cards aren’t changing hands, Mthiyane is a multidisciplinary artist, who speaks with as much confidence about his work as an expressionist painter as he does about his time as a trilingual poet in France and as a dancer touring Holland with the Inzalo dance company.

Mthiyane (39) grew up in Cleremont township near Durban, where after leaving school he would pass time in the studios of artists Sfiso KaMkame and Thami Jali, watching them work.
“I would sit for hours in Sfiso’s room while he was working just looking through books of modern art and art history,” he recalls.

In 1999, after a stint in children’s theatre with the Madcaps educational theatre company and his first solo exhibition at the Flat Gallery in Durban, Mthyane moved to Johannesburg where he began to work seriously on his poetry and performance. By then fluent in textbook French, Mthiyane left for France in 2002 and remained there for six months. “Just to see what other people were doing that side”. It was at the Cave Poésie in Toulouse, Southern France, where he developed his signature act of performing French poetry translated into Zulu. He returned to France in 2001 and again in 2004 to perform the poems of Jacques Prévert in the small town of Heroville near Normandy. “I was very lonely there. It was quite bleak and cold and wet,” he says.

Considering this litany of accomplishments, why haven’t many people heard of Mthiyane? “I stay on the periphery,” he says. “I’m much more of an outsider, and I’m happy to stay that way because I’m not motivated to make money.”

The public eye glanced briefly in his direction in 2001 when he combined a solo exhibition of paintings and a series of poetry readings at the Gerard Sekoto Gallery at the Alliance Française in Johannesburg. Interest in his work is beginning to pick up again following the opening last week of Songlines, a joint exhibition with Samson Mnisi at the Resolution Gallery in Rosebank until the end of October. In this exhibition Mthiyane works for the first time with digital prints of his paintings, to which he spontaneously adds collage, drawing and textual elements.

Songlines is titled after Bruce Chatwin’s contested 1987 travel epic, The Songlines, which narrates the author’s expedition to Australia to research indigenous Australian song. The citation is meant to hint at a musical sensibility in both Mthiyane’s and Mnisi’s works, but also draws attention to a “neo-expressionist” fixation, common to both sets of work. The idea is that the artwork bears the traces of a primal creative impulse. It is not altogether clear that anything is deliberately “neo” about his expressionism, though, besides his use of collage, which approximates the style of one of the fathers of American neo-expressionism, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

His works, as he suggests, are more about personal expression and the channelling of innate creative forces than they are stylistically reflexive engagements with he discourse of art history. “The works are only premeditated up to maybe the first gesture. After that to complete them, it’s something completely different. It’s an automatic process and I just go on,” he says.

“Also, whenever I paint I play a lot of jazz in the background.” The paintings in Songlines were completed to the changes of Miles Davis’s A Kind of Blue, the bible of modal jazz, and John Coltrane’s Love Supreme.

For Mthiyane, encouraging interest in the arts, particularly among the youth, is crucial to the development of South African society, which he maintains needs a lot of work. “I look at humanity very—I wouldn’t say sceptically, but I have a lot of questions about how easily we assume things are okay when they are actually not okay. For me the way forward is to insist on education, especially literacy. When you have an educated society, you have an enlightened people. They may have problems, but they have more creative ways of solving those problems,” he says.

“Art is something for the soul. It’s a healing process. It’s also a tool. If you’re going into politics you can use art as a political tool ... To me this process is more important than what the work is trying to say.”

Songlines shows at Resolution Gallery, 142 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, until October 31. Tel: 011 880 4054

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