Andile Mngxitama on Thami Mnyele and MEDU Arts Ensemble Retrospective at Johannesburg Art Gallery

Thami Mnyele the artist was killed long before the 1985 apartheid raid exterminated him and eleven others in Botswana, Gaborone. The sense of compromising one’s art for the sake of urgent demands of the revolution are palpable in the transition between Mnyele’s earlier works to his later art as a revolutionary in exile. Perhaps this artistic transition speaks more of the impact of the ideological straight-jackets of the liberation movement he joined in exile than on the artist.

Mnyele’s work is currently part of the ‘Thami Mnyele and MEDU Arts Ensemble’, a retrospective exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. The exhibition is constituted by a multiplicity of media, including documentary film recording interviews with surviving fellow artists and family members. However, the focus of the exhibition is Mnyele’s different works, there is also a section focusing on the works of Medu. The ensemble was started around 1979 by Dr Wally Serote amongst others. MEDU was based in Botswana and had explicitly fashioned itself as the cultural wing of the ANC.

A drum article dated April 1973 profiling the Mdali. Mdali being the acronym for Music Drama Art and Literature. Mdali festivals were held in various venues around Johannesburg. Archive of Molefe Pheto.

The write up on MEDU gives scant regard to the obvious tensions created by the partisan decision of exclusively serving the ANC in exile right on the back of the cultural and political domination of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) back home. Most of those who were associated with MEDU were active members of BCM inspired cultural groups such Milhloti and Mdali which performed at the rallies and meetings of Steve Biko’s South African Students Organisation (SASO) amongst others. But also undertook cultural work amongst the oppressed to raise consciousness.

It’s interesting that whilst the curators downplay Mnyele’s BC influences they couldn’t hide the fact that actually he was brought to art by a beautiful chance encounter with Bokwe Mafuna one of Biko’s closest friends and a stalwart of BC. We are told whilst Mnyele was held in a trance by the wailing horn of John Coltrane in second Avenue in Alexandra, Mafuna noticed him and asked him to climb back from his high cloud and then asked him the existential question, what would you like to do? Mnyele responded ‘I want to draw’, that is how the fire was lit.

Mnyele’s artistic development as a juxtaposition of his earlier work against his later work opens up a possibility of dialogue about the questions of what does it mean to be free. Furthermore, his works presents possibilities to dialogue about the implications and limitations of the charterist movement’s conceptions of freedom and practice of power as evidenced by the 15 years of democracy under its guide. We must also ask in this connection, what was lost with the demise of BCM as a cultural, political and philosophical movement which had unparalleled influence in the development of art in the 1970s?

Athi Mongezeleli Joja, the young artist and art history student from Stellenbosch and a member of Gugulective, recently spoke to his counterparts of Blackwash in Joburg on the work of Mnyele. He made the poignant point that the celebration of Mnyele’s later works which are explicitly realistic and simplistic in representing resistance to apartheid, is actually a function of the incapacity of the white liberals and white consumers of art to access black authentic artistic forms as represented by Mnyele’s earlier works which are more metaphysical and contemplative in essence. This black representation defies the exotica and therefore becomes difficult to enjoy even for voyeuristic reasons.

This celebration of Mnyele’s transition from the ‘magical’ to the more ‘didactic and militant’, betrays a serious error or confirms a prejudice in understanding the indivisibility of consciousness and liberation. This error enacts the western thoughts process which proceeds on the basis of separation. This confirms Joja's claims that this articulation of Mnyele’s work is a function of white thought’s castrating desire where black magic is concerned.

Steve Biko makes the best case against the Manichean juxtapositioning when he says one can’t be consciousness and remain in bondage. Mnyele’s earlier work, which is seen as less militant and less revolutionary was in fact inspired and organised by a black conscious ethic and energy, and it oozes infinite capacities and invitations for thoroughgoing revolutionary experience. But as Frank Wilderson so forcefully shows, mirroring the concerns of Joja, black suffering to make itself understood by white beings has to ‘structurally adjust itself’, in other words it has to speak the language of whiteness. In a sense a dialogue between black and white in an anti black world can only proceed on the basis of an asymmetry of power practice - the vanquished black on the one hand and the triumphant white on the other. To insist on equality of the exchange is to call for the end of dialogue and a subversion of the tranquil non-racial existence patched together by a pack lies.

Installation views of the exhibition with Thami Mnyele's work from the 70's.

It can be said that because Mnyele’s magical surrealistic almost dream-like earlier works are underplayed precisely because they plumb the depths of consciousness to confront and project black suffering in its own language and terms. But this is a language of another form of existence, which is absence in the dominant articulations of being which informs the liberal political concerns as in the ANC political lexicon. So Mnyele like so many other young people who left the country in the aftermath of the 1976 uprising shouting ‘black power!’ find himself turned into a ‘militant’ through his art being structurally adjusted. But then the artist was killed and we see the birth of a mere pamphleteer.

The story of how the BCM inspired young militants who left the country to join the armed struggle were cajoled, bamboozled and threatened to structurally alter their political and philosophical believes in the cold unknown worlds of exile remain to be told. I’m making no claims about the specific case of Mnyele, I’m simply raising a general concern.

We need to emphasize that the transition from doing conceptual art to the realistic art form says something about the demands of being black and conscious. Mnyele’s earlier works confront one’s senses of perception in a deeply disturbing way. They invite deep self-reflection; you just cannot unsee them once you stand in front of these pieces, you can’t run away, you can’t look away you must deal with them. Its almost traumatic in its demands, this art form. This confrontation of one at the base of one’s individual core is key to self realisation and coming to consciousness to enact a revolution which thinks and is centred on a higher conception of existence, a promise so much pregnant in Biko’s articulations.

That Mnyele was killed in an apartheid raid is testimony to his love for freedom, however, art critics and lay art consumers alike would do well to re-look at Mnyele’s work through the prism of the promise of liberation and the experience of post 1994. What is clear is that the exigencies of the political struggle, which are not rooted in the conception of just how deep we must go to built an enduring experience of liberation leads to what Fanon called ‘tragic mishaps’ of the post colony. Maybe it’s time to return rebellion back to consciousness and art to articulating the black condition so that we may be makers of another historic moment. There is much to be learned from the great works of Thami Mnyele.

A diplay of publications featuring Thami Mnyele's artwork (left) and an installation view of the room where Medu posters are exhibited (right).

These challenges of producing ‘socially functional’ art, as Dr Leroke shows in the case of Dumile Feni, are not new. The dangers of narrowing art to functionality have usually a diminishing impact on an art form. This is different from saying art must serve only its own ends, that it shouldn’t be concerned with the human condition. The point being made here is that in serving through unnerving art helps us to see better and dream clearer. Two pieces of Feni which sort of testify to the deadening impact of narrow politics or structural adjustment are his ‘Soweto’ and ‘Free Mandela’, for a moment we see the great Feni falling flat, his pencil’s sharp point breaks and we cant help imagining him groping for the rubber, for the fist time the great master wished for the comfort of an erasure. His functional images simply stop to dance and shout, we fail to feel the raw energy of an artist so greatly gifted. Political sloganeering is no great bedfellow of art, but art can ignite revolutionary imaginations and bring down tyrannies.

It would serve posterity a lot to check out Mnyele’s work, but more importantly to use it as a canvass upon which new conversations and artistic volcanoes can emerge unencumbered by narrow or adjusted political projects. These are old questions, which demands new urgency as our new nation falters from one blunder to the next and the artist has gone silent.

Andile Mngxitama