South African exile art comes home

18 February 2009

South Africans in exile are the focus of a four-month retrospective at the Johannesburg Art Gallery – “probably one of the major highlights of the year” for the gallery, according to the head curator, Clive Kellner.

The Thami Mnyele and Medu Art Ensemble Retrospective Exhibition opened on 30 November and runs until 30 March 2009.

It is a tribute to the exiled South Africans who formed the Medu Art Ensemble in Botswana. “We want to pay homage to them for having used their courage, vision and artistic creativity to fight apartheid,” explains Kellner. The exhibition is an extraordinary account of an artistic community in exile that used its talent to speak about the conditions in their country.


Zoopy TV: The Thami Mnyele and Medu Art Ensemble Retrospective Exhibition takes a look at how the fight against the apartheid machine was waged through the arts. Click arrow to play video.

On show are the graphic artworks of Thami Mnyele, whose works are considered seminal to the South African art scene. An anti-apartheid stalwart, Mnyele was murdered by the apartheid government more than two decades ago.

Along with works by Mnyele and other visual artists, there are poems and music. A big exhibition, it “records the struggles we had to go through in striving for a better nation,” Kellner says.

The exhibition covers several rooms at the gallery, each dedicated to a specific medium, including drawings, graphics, fine arts, biographies, posters, paintings, sculptures, newsletters, documentary films, photographs, and conference papers, among others.

Thami Mnyele

Thamsanqa “Thami” Mnyele was born in Alexandra, Johannesburg; growing up in the township, he used art to voice his concerns about South Africa’s political landscape. He was the third of five children; his father was a minister and his mother was a domestic worker.

Because of his active role in politics, Mnyele was exiled to Gaborone, in Botswana. He was killed in 1985 during a cross-border raid orchestrated by the South African Defence Force (SADF). He died less than a day before he was due to relocate to Zambia. He was 37.

A large collection of his art, created while in exile, was packed into a portfolio, which the SADF confiscated. The collections were later screened on SABC television by the SADF officer, Craig Williamson, as part of evidence of Mnyele’s “terrorist” activities. Those works have never been recovered.

Medu Art Ensemble

While in Botswana, Mnyele worked with the Medu Art Ensemble, which was co-founded by his friend, Mongane Wally Serote, and was dedicated to the anti-apartheid struggle. Later, it redirected its focus to music, theatre, graphics and cinema.

Deputy President Baleka Mbete and musicians Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa were schooled here. Medu’s active involvement in politics led to the ensemble being targeted by the apartheid security units.

In 1984, in his unpublished autobiography, Mnyele wrote: “For me as craftsman, the act of creating art should complement the act of creating shelter for my family or liberating the country for my people. This is culture.”

He added: “Our work hasn’t yet developed above the mere stage of protest. We’re still moaning and pleading. And even that we do with inferior craftsmanship and insincerity. We must partake actively in the struggle to paint sincerely.”

Today, the Thami Mnyele Foundation’s residency programme for African artists in Amsterdam, Holland, continues to bear testament to the late artist’s far-reaching influence.

The Johannesburg Art Gallery is on King George Street in Joubert Park; it is bordered by Wolmarans and Noord streets and is open to the public on Tuesdays through Sundays from 10am to 5pm.

For more information about the Thami Mnyele and Medu Art Ensemble Retrospective Exhibition, contact the gallery on +27 (0)11 725 3130.

Source: City of Johannesburg