Artist Dathini Mzayiya whose art tackles issues surrounding vaccine hesitance looks forward to participating at Johannesburg Open Studios

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

I am just not comfortable running late for anything, and therefore when I was 10 minutes late to a meeting with visual artist, Dathini Mzayiya at the former Museum of African Design building in Maboneg on Tuesday, October 18, 2021, I felt uncomfortable. Thank goodness, he was on the phone and it made me relax a bit, as I reckoned that by the time he finished his phone call, all my tardiness with time, would have been all forgiven.

After cutting short his call, promising whoever was on the other line to call him in an hour or so, I was by then a bit relaxed. He took me straight into the building, on the way stopping, to show me some of his artworks hanging on the walls of one of the offices of this building now renamed Ant Hill. We thenproceeded deep inside this mammoth building, and on the way, passing Gallery  Fanon on the left, taking a few steps down into the parking lot, and yet another layer of steps down again into the basement. He opened a closed but not locked, a door facing us on the left side and ushered me in.

Dathini Mzayiya Bomama Be Qawe

We were in his studio in the basement of the building. My eye immediately dawn to a gigantic art piece placed carefully to balance against the studio walls. It is a painting of EFF leader Julius Malema with his two hands up, with two of his fingers on each hand, pointing upwards as If he was addressing a political rally. Malema was on an elevated platform and below him were a group of white people, who seem to be actively engaging with the firebrand politician.

“This piece is titled Juju’s Orchestra. It was created in 2012 at Malema’s height of political influence. (Juju is Malema’s political nickname). If you remember well, he was at the height of his political influence within and outside the ANC as the leader of the ANC Youth League. According to me Malema has never been as influential as that time. It was at a time when he also could ask hard questions to his elders in the ANC with regards to policy issues as contained in the founding documents of the ANC, including the land issue. He questioned many elders including Mandela on those issues. And of course he made many uncomfortable,” said Mzayiya.

He also explained that the white people that seem to be engaging with him are journalists during a media conference at the time.

“When you look at how he is pointing the fingers up, it looks like he is conducting an orchestra and the people below, the media, seem to be the members of the orchestra, and therefore, I titled this piece Juju’s Orchestra.”

My attention was then drawn to another piece also balancing against the walls of the studio on the other side, directly facing Juju’s Orchestra painting from across the floor.

This one is a disturbing picture of a woman who is embracing a toddler, but on her waste there is clearly a pistol tucked in which is however protruding clearly for one to see. The embrace is more of a protective posture than an embrace of love. Around the frame of that painting there are two Police tapes on each side, the ones that are used at crime scenes. They are embedded in the artwork. These are real police tapes and not a painterly representation of the real thing.

“That piece is titled Woman and Child. It is a representation of a police woman who is also a mother. Those tapes you see are real tapes left behind at crime scenes around Johannesburg. I often go around and pick them up. In this picture there is a lot one can take, including the fact that in as much as the employment of women as police officers is empowering, sometimes we forget that the very same women are also mothers who need to take care and protect their own children from harm. With these tapes that I picked up from crime scenes in and around Johannesburg, this is a stark reminder that we live in a dangerous place, and this is evidence enough to remind us of the danger lurking around us,” he said before my eyes were drawn to yet another drawing, which is in progress. This one is hanging on the walls.

It is a painting of a man in a suit with his mouth wide open. However, he is neither singing or talking, but his mouth is clearly open. On his forehead there is his mask. He is neither covering his mouth or his nose.

“I call this painting Fugitive Studies. It is part of a series I started a while. This one, which is a portrayal of a man in a suit with his mouth open, could represent anyone, especially those running away from something, including politicians. These are people running away from a number of things, such as debts for example. But this one clearly references the issue of those who are mistrusting of vaccinating, and one of the reasons people may be distrusting is the fact that now, it is no longer an issue of whether one chooses to vaccinate or not, but it feels like you do not have a choice. You can see it in advertisements that are flighted everywhere about the need for people to vaccinate. There is even a talk that one might not be allowed to enter public offices unless they produce a vaccination certificate. This is not to say I am opposed to vaccination, but just to raise a pertinent issue about the messaging around vaccination,” he explains.

Next to this one, there is yet another art piece, and this one is a drawing of a woman clad in church uniform. Just like the Fugitive Studies piece, the woman’s mouth is wide open and she seems to be singing. But there is something with her mask which is lowered down underneath her chin, looking like a plastic cold drink container. The ones that once we are done with the cold drink we just throw away.

“Currently there is the issue of people’s right to freedom of worship, which is curtailed by regulations pertaining to Covid-19. This one which I have titled Bomama Be Qawe references the issue of the individual right to spiritual worship in the times of Covid-19 and the regulations that are applicable,” Mzayiya explains.

Queen’s Town, eastern Cape born Mzayiya has been practising as an artist for 20 years now, after graduating from the famous Cape Town art school, Community Arts Project (CAP), after which he worked with a number of galleries in Cape Town, including Greatmore Gallery.

He also got a residency at the University of the Western Cape, offered by the Humanities faculty in 2014 to 2015. A founding member of the famous community based art collective Gugulective in Cape Town, which among its founders, included academic and curator Thembinkosi Goniwe, Mzayiya who relocated to Johannesburg three years ago, has exhibited and has held residencies in Ethiopia in East Africa, and in Europe, working in such countries that include Austria, The Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland.

In Johannesburg, Mzayiya is working with Braamfontein based Kalashnikovv Gallery.

Mzayiya’s art pieces Bomama Be Qawe, Fugitive Studies and Woman and Child, will be at August House during the two day, Johannesburg Open Studios event scheduled for October 30 and October 31, forming part of the six pieces he will exhibit there.

In this event the META foundation has instigated the largest joint open studios to ever happen in Johannesburg. Six studio spaces, in the CDB, will be opening their doors, inviting the public to meet the artists in their studios and to view their artwork. The Meta Foundation started this project with a soft launch in May,then combining two studio spaces, namely August House and Ellis House. This iteration of the event will be even larger and will include 2 days of open studios with six studio spaces participating.

This is the first time something of this nature has been done in Johannesburg and will allow the public to interact with almost 100 artists from different countries, cities and artists at different stages of their careers.

This is a unique opportunity for the public to truly explore the visual arts and hear directly from the artists.

The event will take place over two days, Saturday 30 October and Sunday 31 October with 3 studios being open on each day: Saturday 30 October from 11am to 3pm, Ellis House, Living Artist Emporium, Victoria Yards, and Sunday 31 October from 11am to 3pm: Bag Factory Artists’ Studios, Nugget Square, August House.

In order to make this event as visitor friendly as possible, a shuttle service between the spaces will be provided free of charge to the public. Guests can park at one of the studios and catch a bus. There will

be two buses that move in a loop around the studios with a bus being available every 15/20 minutes. All the spaces will be offering the public programmes that will run through-out the day.

The event is free and open to all members of the public. Access will be refused to anyone not wearing a mask or members of the public not adhering to social distancing obligations, the organisers have warned.

“This kind of a thing is helpful because the audience is also different, mainly business people who normally do not have an opportunity to be in a studio atmosphere with artists to pick up their ideas about their creativity. This is something one will not get an opportunity to do in a gallery environment,” says Mzayiya, who also participated in the May event this year.

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