The murdered aspiration of Thami Mnyele

There are a lot of thorns and barbed wire in Thami Mnyele's drawings. One sketch shows a mother in her township matchbox-house: she holds her toddler, but away from herself, looking the other way. Alongside there is a march of angry and excited people with clenched fists. The child also clenches his fist. It looks at them, not at the mother.

Growing up in apartheid South Africa in the seventies and early eighties of the last century, 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.

The artist residence for African artists in Amsterdam is named after him. "To give others the space he never had. It’s a homage to that dampened aspiration," in the words of then municipal council member and initiator of the Thami Mnyele Foundation Bert Holvast of the Dutch Green Left party.

On June 14, 1985, a South African military unit raided Thami Mnyele's home in the exile community in neighbouring Botswana. The soldiers grabbed his drawings from the walls, took with them what they could and opened fire at what they had to leave behind. Then they threw in a hand grenade. After the fire came the water from the damaged water pipes, completing the destruction. The next day friends found the body of the artist. He had been thirty-seven years old, born in 1948, the year of the introduction of apartheid.

Thami Mnyele's themes were formed by the harsh society he grew up in, in Alexandra township, northeast of Johannesburg. The mother who stirs her cooking pot whilst violence explodes outside; the old woman smiling at her grandchild while the mother stares anxiously into the distance. The baby locked up in a pen. Bitter faces of black apartheid army soldiers. An old man closing his eyes with a painful frown. Many of the drawings show split people: a round, healthy woman with full bosom, whose hands flow into a skinny, bloody female figure. They move away from each other whilst also holding on tightly. The head is missing from both. The face is also missing from a small, naked figure that sits on the bare ground under bars. It morphs into a bigger, older alter ego that carries an army belt and contemplates a map of the oil installations of the state: targets of the armed resistance.

Armed resistance was the end of Thami Mnyele’s own development as an artist. The son of a priest and a ‘township mother’ as he put it, he had started out as a painter of religiously inspired work, combining themes from the Bible with daily life around him. In the small community of professional black artists in South Africa, where making a living usually involved having to produce cheerful black folklorism for white art galleries, his work was exceptional. Mongane Wally Serote, South African, poet and personal friend of Mnyele, remembers their first meeting in 1970: "A photographer in Alexandra had invited me to meet Thami Mnyele. I had expected him to be part of the fashion that was called 'township art’: that multi-coloured ‘African’ style that is bought by many whites. Participating in this fashion was the only way to success for a young black artist after all.  But what I saw, in the house where I was taken to, and where a boy neatly unpacked a brown paper packet, was surprising: a small, thick, rounded pig, drawn with astonishing precision. It was so beautiful that there was a silence in the house. Thami looked at the ceiling, scratched his chin and took the drawing back. He said: ‘It is called the Lost Son’.

The biblical theme of the Prodigal Son (for whose return the fattened pig is slaughtered) fitted perfectly into the life of Alexandra township, where children disappeared to join the 'struggle', or were arrested; where families were torn by passport laws and deportations. But for people like Wally Serote and Thami Mnyele, art itself was a lost son too. In the eyes of the minority regime, blacks had no culture except for the handcraft of multi-coloured cloths and traditional spears. A museum in a township, art in the black community: to the ideologues of apartheid that idea was as absurd as a library among monkeys in the zoo. But on the day that Thami Mnyele took his drawing out of the brown paper, he and Wally Serote began planning the return of this Lost Son to Alexandra.

Together with a few others they founded the Mihloti Black Theatre. Writers, painters, photographers and musicians from the township put together a program of poetry, music and writings of black political leaders. For the time being it was only theatre: to present visual art one would need materials, patience, exhibition space and structural maintenance of a kind that, under apartheid, would be very difficult to pull off. Theatre could work immediately and, like so many artists in South Africa, Thami Mnyele did not just draw: he wrote, sang, danced and acted too. The Mihloti Black Theatre performed at schools, churches, political gatherings across the country and even in neighbouring countries. Thami Mnyele played the role of the American black consciousness movement leader Malcolm X.

But in 1976, after the Soweto uprisings and their violent oppression, the time had come for visual representation. For the first time in history, an exhibition of work by black artists was opened in Soweto itself. It was there that playwright Matsemela Manaka met Mnyele. "The fact alone that you meet each other as two black artists, at an art event in a township, was an overwhelming experience ", says Manaka when we meet, in Johannesburg in 1992. He explains that he had come to know of Mnyele from a booklet of poems by Wally Serote for which the artist had made the cover. "I thought: this is beautiful. Why does nobody know the name Mnyele, why have I never heard of him? That's why I went to Soweto. That exhibition was the first opportunity to prove that there was black culture in South Africa."

“Thami made me feel that art can play a role in building up a destroyed, torn people”

Manaka, who is not only a playwright but also a painter, felt inspired and influenced by Thami Mnyele, although they differed about politics. Manaka's views were aligned to the black consciousness movement, that wanted blacks to free themselves first, while Mnyele had become a member of the non-racial ANC, which united black and white in the fight against apartheid. Yet Manaka also felt black pride and consciousness in Mnyele's work. "Thami made me feel that art can play a role in building up a destroyed, torn people. Our people. As black artists we were, each separately, colonised by those who controlled all cultural life in our country. If you wanted to introduce something as a black artist, you had to go to the white galleries. Often you did not even see your own work afterwards. It was sold and disappeared and sometimes whites who bought it did not even place it on their walls! Can you imagine what it feels like when you walk into a house of someone who bought your work -as it happened occasionally- and it is not there? That you do not know where it is, not even if it still exists? And that at the same time the people with whom you live in your own community will never see it? The system functions as a censor in all these ways. In order to take people's forms of expression, it is not always necessary to burn books. You can also buy it, steal it, hide it. Like Thami’s work, which was appropriated by those who killed him. While Thami’s dream had been to bring art back to the places where it was created; to the community that was the source of it. "

Manaka has exhibited in churches and parks, the only places a township used to offer for the purpose. "It was always good to see the people stand still, look at what you made, ask 'what is this?' Even when what you made is abstract. The experience is a new beginning of a sense of what art is: the feeling that your life is worth expressing in all possible different forms.” Thami Mnyele felt that intensely, says Manaka. “He was someone who wanted to share that feeling with his people. He never kept his inventions and techniques for himself. That is special, because, since you already have a hard time surviving as an artist, very often you feel the need to keep your studio to yourself and not even share your work process with colleagues for fear of competition. But Thami was constantly busy encouraging and training others, young people. He loved workshops, a living culture, enthusiasm and creativity in the townships and everywhere. That was his dream: the return of the Prodigal Son, to him, was life itself.”

But oppression became harder, crueler. First, in 1977, Wally Serote had to leave the country because the police were looking for him. Mnyele fled in 1978. Both 'lost sons' of Alexandra joined the ANC in exile and Mnyele became much more of a political activist than he had been until now. He made posters, pamphlets, he joined the guerrilla. He saw no other way. Art morphed into propaganda. "It's a choice," says Matsemela Manaka. "What do you do with your anger?" asks Wally Serote. Anger would still drive Mnyele for the next seven years, until the soldiers rushed in and destroyed him and his work.

Thami Mnyele was an artist who could never fully be an artist. "That is why we named the Amsterdam studio after him,” says initiator Bert Holvast. "Not just because of his work. This is not about a famous artist who has left behind a large oeuvre, but about someone who never reached that point because he did not have the means; because his colour prevented him from doing so; and because a violent system forced him to fight instead of continuing to develop as an artist. It killed him and it destroyed his work before he got the chance to become something. The idea for the artist residence is based on that murdered aspiration."

Holvast met Mnyele when the latter was in the Netherlands in 1983 for a cultural conference organised by the Dutch Anti Apartheid Movement, the AABN. They became friends and the idea of an internship in the Netherlands for black South African artists already arose then. Holvast: "Thami himself dreamed of spending time at something like the (Dutch artists') Rietveld Academy. He told me he would love to be able to breathe more freely and to focus more broadly on the different artistic developments in the world. But that never happened. His life was about running between conferences and places of exile."

On the last day, just before his departure from Amsterdam, Holvast remembers Mnyele wanted to do two more things. To visit a jazz record shop and to go to the Rijksmuseum to see the painting 'The Mother' by Rembrandt. “In that record shop he knew exactly what he wanted, we bought the records. Then we cycled to the museum and things went fast there, too. He quickly passed all the hordes of tourists to get to that one room where 'The Mother' was displayed. For five minutes or so he stood silent, with his chin in his hand, looking at that painting. He had wanted to see that painting for years. After five minutes, he looked up and said, "We can go now."

Two years later, Bert Holvast heard of the Botswana massacre in which Mnyele was killed alongside, -among a number of other ANC members-, also two Batswana women, a 71-year old driver, and a six-year-old boy. "I realised he would never have another day like the one we had, with jazz, and Rembrandt’s Mother, in freedom. I thought about the bag with brushes and pencils he always carried with him and wondered what happened to it. The soldiers must have taken that, too.”

Holvast calls the Thami Mnyele studio a ‘Jacob’s ladder’ to a promised future “for those who come after Thami Mnyele and a homage to those who, like him, never made it.”

This is an adaptation of a story previously published in De Anti Apartheidskrant, October 1992.