History in epic proportions


epic: long poem narrating the adventures or deeds of one or more heroic or legendary figures.

Thami Mnyele at JAG, 12 December 2007 – 31 March 2008

Upon being asked to write a review about the Thami Mnyele and Medu Art Ensemble Retrospective currently running at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, we agreed it would be a good opportunity to explore our writing skills in the art world. The show opened on a grand scale. This very spectacle confirmed the ‘epic- ness’ of the show.

As it turned out, we did not know who Thami Mnyele was, and to this we admit unashamedly, but we couldn’t stop the feeling of ignorance which swept in. We did the research....a few minutes of googling sufficed. The art ensemble minimised our somewhat large gap of lack of knowledge. We learned that another freedom fighter existed, that he was prolific, talented in the field of graphic arts and highly influential in the struggling history of South Africa.

We realised that we should have at least come across the name during our tertiary studies. High school Art History classes had also been guilty of neglect. And no, neither of us went to those education deprived institutions. If people were making such a fuss over this prolific man how did they manage to exclude his work from the Art History curriculum? That question alone brings into light how history has been appropriated and controlled. The change in governance in South Africa had finally allowed those unacknowledged contributors of South Africa to be recognized and appreciated for their efforts of change.

We are not wrong in saying that often, we as the youth are overwhelmed by the heavy history of South Africa: the struggle, the violence; the avalanche of freedom fighters. After sometime these legendary stories become redundant. It was refreshing to be immersed in the presence of such profound, unconventional, and extremely talented artists. Mnyele’s involvement in the arts was not limited to the visual. He was part of theatre before his move to the visual arts. He co-founded the Medu Art centre and was extremely active in the mobilisation of art as a communicative element in society. This had begun with graphic art which took the form of silkscreen prints.

This tribute to both Mnyele and The Medu Ensemble had indeed manifested itself as an ensemble. You could not refer to the ‘Art Ensemble Retrospective’ as an exhibition. An exhibition requires curatorship. Clearly an ensemble does not. It brings to mind the title of a Radiohead track off Amnesiac, “Packed like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box”. The works were shown in what some might euphemistically refer to as an intimate display.

Please note that in no way does the reference to ‘crushed tin box’ have anything to do with The Johannesburg Art Gallery.

It was quite exhausting to get wade through all the literary, musical and visual stimuli. This kind of epic ensemble definitely required someone with a phenomenal attention span and stamina so that he or she could fully appreciate it in its entirety. The section known as the Reading Room had infiltrated its way throughout the museum. It would actually be wrong to use the word ‘entirely’- after all there were a few visuals to stimulate the audience; silkscreen prints neatly tucked away in the corner.

The politics which fed the need for these posters and prints became the primary focus of these works, and as a result the aesthetic aspects of the works were overlooked. These were functional works after all. They were made with the intention to mobilise and educate. It is interesting to note that the silkscreen prints, much like the entire ensemble seem to share a similar function: to educate. It was all too easy to fall in the trap of discussing the politics of the exhibition and not discuss the visual aspects of Mnyele and Medu’s work. One of the reasons for this could mainly be due to our own laziness to engage with the work. It seems that this lack of engagement with the actual work is common amongst us art writers.

So on the third visit we made a concerted effort to actually ‘look’ at what was displayed. Medu was made up of six units; graphic art, film, music, publications and research, photographic, and theatre. The show was divided accordingly. Mnyele had been a very involved man, being a member of Mihloti, The Black Consciousness Society, Mdali, The Rorkes Drift, and the ANC. The room allocated to the work of Mnyele boasted drawings from 1971 to 1984. Mnyele draws not only his circumstance, but also that of the people around him. You can see the influences of Dumile Feni in the work Come to my home and join us on our journey (1973). Similar to that of Feni, Mnyele’s figures seems inhuman. Their distorted bodies bear the mark of poverty and struggle; their eyes gouging, crying and burdened. In Brotherhood on Ninth Avenue (1974) Mnyele uses a similar process to the surrealists Dali and Ernst. If you do not immediately make this connection, you will once you read the information panel. If you take a closer look you will see quotes from W.B Yeats and Pablo Neruda on a few of his works, confirming the fact that black people do in fact read.

The show may be seen as an important attempt at creating a space whereby the public have access to those histories and stories that were conveniently never mentioned before. The space is interactive, allowing the viewer to look, listen as well as read. Many might think that what happened in 1985 stays in 1985, however, the consequences of these struggles are evidently still relevant. The poster ‘Apartheid Kills- Fight Resettlement’ (1982) by the Medu Art Ensemble is a collage of newspaper headlines with the title of the work printed in bold red. One headline sticks out…cholera kills six. Could it be any more relevant?

Bhavisha Panchia and Portia Malatjie