The artist is participating in Elis House’s Open Studio Session on Sunday, November 29, 2020, from 10am to 4pm. Mthiyane’s studio is on the fifth floor of Ellis House Art Building, 23 Voorhout St, Bertrams, Johannesburg, 2094.
By Edward Tsumele
Multi-disciplinary artist, who is most probably most known for his abstract art Thokozani Mthiyane, is a story teller par excellence, and in a way, this explains the organized disorder one sees in his expansive studio at Ellis House Art Building 23 Voorhout St, Bertrams, Johannesburg, 2094, an arts hub that houses artists’ studios and residences as well. In the studio which is quite big, you will immerse yourself in art created using different media, some complete, some at the beginning of their journey of creation, some just material piled alongside walls of this huge, really huge studios that also doubles as the artist’s living quarters.
Besides paint, brushes, pencils and other materials, you will also notice lots of what looks like non valuable material, which have reached their life span and have been discarded outside by Johannesburg residents, either waiting to slowly decay as all organic materials eventually do, or picked up by Pikitup, destined for the landfills of Johannesburg. However some such lucky material will be picked up by Mthiyane, to be given another lease on life, and this time around, such material will be changed dramatically from an abandoned, seemingly useless material that for all practical reasons of everyday living, no longer has use for ordinary people in their households.
But being picked up by Mthiyane, such material will not only find itself turned into a valuable piece of art that has a new life, often more valuable than its previous life as a throw-away door, discarded card board, or window frame, as the artist turns these materials into beautiful pieces of art that have a narrative to tell about human beings and their interaction with nature. Such formerly useless throw-away rubbish, turned into extremely valuable art works often find themselves occupying a place of pride in a collector’s spacious home walls, for Mthiyane is one of the country’s collectable artist, especially for collectors who have a thing for abstract pieces.
In fact in his studios there are many of these materials lying around, being turned into art or waiting for an idea still in Mthiyane’s mind that he will at the right time he will turn into living art, once the artist has decided what to do with such material.
“Currently in this studio I am working on several series, 10 actually at the same time. That is how I work and that is why you can see there are lots of art works dealing with different themes at different stages of creation. I work like that. Once an idea comes, I do straight and work on it and then go back to the other idea again and again,” he says. It is obvious that this artist works mainly with discarded material as there is quite a lot of them in his studio, mainly organic material, even though he says, he sometimes works with non degradable material such as plastic.
“One day I was looking for syringes in dirty rubbish beans on the periphery of Maboneng, for n an art concept I was working on about drugs and drug addicts, when one of the addicts who knew me as he had seen me in coffee shops around Maboneng, told his fellow addicts that I was now one of them. He actually was very excited to tell his fellow addicts that the mighty had fallen, and had now joined them on life’s fringes, looking for syringes with which to deliver my shot of drug. I found it funny, and maybe even amusing. To them, I had come down from the high life of enjoying coffee in Maboneng’s high society, and was now one of them. At the end, however, I abandoned the project, and not because of what these people were saying as quite honestly, I do not care who says what when it comes to salvaging some discarded material from mall over Johannesburg, that fit into my concept as something that could be turned into art. I had to abandon the project as I started working on other ideas,” he told me in an interview.
The reality is, Mthiyane’s art practice is multi-faceted, with many complex layers, interdisciplinary as he incorporates performance, such as in poetry, theatre and dance, and creates mainly abstract pieces that are informed by an intense sense of spiritualism as they are by African myths and mysticism.
You will find some of his pieces with crosses, incisions and circles, alluding to the idea of religion playing an important part of how he frames his themes in a given artistic narrative. Context is always important to the artist and his art practice. Mthiyane is widely travelled around the world, whether it is reading poetry in the South of France, or spending years in Lagos, Nigeria, or traveling from one European country to another, almost like a nomad, Mthiyane has done it all.
“The point I want to make is that sometimes, we have an idea about a place and its culture, informed by what we have heard and read about that particular place, but once you physically visit the place, you then come to a different understanding from what you originally had heard and read about it.
“For example, If you visited Nigeria and you observe the people’s relationship with say, Fela Kuti’s music, you start to realize that there are different perspectives about Fela Kuti and his music in Nigerai itself, as opposed to the kind of relationship we have with him here,” he says without volunteering to explain further.
And music plays a very central role in Mthiyane’s process of creating. For example, when I asked him to reduce the volume of an Afro-soul/jazz song (I could not figure out who the artist was) so that we could hear each other without shouting, I could notice him restraining himself from showing signs of irritation with my request. He obliged, I guess more out of politeness to his demanding guest than a genuine belief that the music was a bit loud, and therefore irritating to have a meaningful discussion at that level of noise.
However as the conversation progressed, and I guess, he too becoming comfortable with my presence and engagement about his work, he frequently changed music on his Vinyl player, now playing real cool jazz, that I could not help but react to what I heard, and this time around, the tune had drawn him to work on a piece he had started, portraits of two women at the beginning of their creation. Yes, he does figurative art too, alongside abstract art. His process is cardboard sculpting. No wonder, the music of Dizzy Gillespie, a piece called Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac, that was playing on his vinyl player this time around, forced him to be fired up up again, and this time straight to paint, in a seemingly haphazard manner. He kind of did throw paint randomly on an abstract piece on board and the result was amazing and clearly it was a measured and practiced exercised by a skilled and experienced artist. Gillespie music that was playing must have had something to do with the artist’s imagination, I concluded.
“I am sure you did not expect this. But the reality is music plays an important part in my art practice. In fact I am a collector of music, vinyl records. And his eyes were focused on a pile of vinyl records in front of him, from which he had whipped out Gillespie’s Swing Low, Cadillac that he unleashed on our unsuspecting ears, that is my ears and those of fellow artist Dominic Tshabangu whom I found in Mthiyane’s studio. But this time, unlike the first time, our ears obliged. In fact we enjoyed the music and this irony was not lost on Mthiyane.
“When you asked me to reduce that volume, to be honest with you, I felt almost asking you what kind of a person are you who does not appreciate this kind of music. Music in fact plays a very important part of my creative process,” he said.
Mthiyane is a Johannesburg based artist represented by Art Eye Gallery, but who grew up in Claremont Township near Durban, where after leaving school he would pass time in the studios of artists Sfiso Ka Mkame and Thami Jali, watching them work. He has been largely influenced by his time spent under the tutelage of KaMkame and Jali. Besides visual art, Mthiyane has vast experience in different art discioplines, including in children’s theatre with the Madcap’s Educational Theatre Company, after which he had his first solo exhibition at the Flat Gallery in Durban. 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. He has exhibited at the Centre for humanities research, and has exhibited at African noise foundation. In 2017 he had a solo show with Art Eye Gallery, show titled Soul songs: The shape of my head. He has also exhibited with Undiscovered Canvas, In Cannes. He developed his signature act of performing French poetry translated into Zulu in Cave Poésie in Toulouse, Southern France.
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. Mthiyane’s artistic flare stems from his creative combination of painting and poetry. He has exhibited for Alliance Françoise and Resolution Gallery in Johannesburg.
In 2015 he had a solo exhibition titled Whetin dey happen Lagos/ Jozi at Mzansi Gallery Johannesburg South Africa.
In 2016 his artwork was published in The Imbali Artbooks: Adventuring into art, which is part of a syllabus. In 2017 he had his first solo show at Art Eye Gallery titled Soul songs the shape of my head. Can you hear me? 2018 Oil and mixed media on canvas
Mthiyane’s work is a spontaneous culmination of happenings which are lead purely by the artists feeling toward his canvas. His multicultural aesthetic is drawn from his desire for travel and connection to countries all over the world. This consumption and cultivation of other cultural influences and practices is somehow the place on which the works elaboration exists. The works hold narratives referencing his experiences through love, spirituality, music and painting. So much of his process involves combining these influences through physical objects and brush stoke.
Mthiyane’s works are inherently physically apart of the contexts they come from, as much of his process includes the use of found objects in and around which ever context he finds himself inhibited with Undiscovered Canvas, In Cannes.
He developed his signature act of performing French poetry translated into Zulu in Cave Poésie in Toulouse, Southern France.
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.
Mthiyane’s artistic flare stems from his creative combination of painting and poetry. He has exhibited for Alliance Françoise and Resolution Gallery in Johannesburg. In 2015 he had a solo exhibition titled Whetin dey happen Lagos/ Jozi at Mzansi Gallery Johannesburg South Africa. In 2016 his artwork was published in The Imbali Artbooks: Adventuring into art, which is part of a syllabus.
In essence, Mthiyane’s work is a spontaneous culmination of happenings which are lead purely by the artists feeling toward his canvas. His multicultural aesthetic is drawn from his desire for travel and connection to countries all over the world. This consumption and cultivation of other cultural influences and practices is somehow the place on which the works elaboration exists. The works hold narratives referencing his experiences through love, spirituality, music and painting. So much of his process involves combining these influences through physical objects and brush stoke.
Mthiyane’s works are inherently physically apart of the contexts they come from, as much of his process includes the use of found objects in and around which ever context he finds himself in. Vision of light, 2019 Oil on canvas Limitless, 2018 Oil on canvas.
“ It does not matter any longer to ponder on how I began to paint, draw and create objects attributed as art writing poetry and the assemble of other words. All I can attest to is that my activity as an artist has widened, deepened my sensibility about being and becoming and the very experience of being alive. it is why I make art in the image of the world that I see and experience, which has persistently given me the urgency to express myself into a meaningful existence.
My experiences are organic but they also come from books and oral stories from all the countries I have put my foot on; be it religious, artistic, ritualistic and all that points to a spiritual experience in gathering and hybridizing these human gestures into a narrative. The body of work I am working on is the creation of abstract pieces whose essence lies in memory and becoming,” he says.
When I went to see Mthiyane on Friday, November 19, 2020, this interview was supposed to last between 30-45 minutes, but four hours later, after lots of organic coffee, pasta and shots of whisky, that is when I managed to ‘rescue’ myself from Mthiyane’s hospitality and story-telling gifts.
.You can visit Thokazani Mthiyane on Sunday, November 29, at Ellis House Art Building, 23 Voorhout St, Bertrams, Johannesburg, during the Ellis House Open Studio Session from 10am 4pm, for a chat, viewing art and for a glass of Bubbly.