On Thami as artist

(speech given by Judy Seidman in commemoration of Thami Mnyele, for annual Thami Mneyele Award for artists, Tembisa, 2010)

Honourable Mayor of Erkhululeni, distinguished councilors and city officials, members of Thami’s family, … comrades and friends;

I am honoured, and humbled, to speak to you today about Thami Mnyele as an artist, on this momentous occaision to honour  his memory; on this occaision when you, his community, reach out to pick up his cultural heritage.

Actually, my first impulse is to say, the best way to understand this heritage is to look at, and think about, the images in the exhibition here.  That is always the surest measure of a truly great artist:  we know an artist is great when we look at the paintings, then turn away from them to see the world around us – and we find that that world around us is full of  the lines and colours and meanings and beliefs that we saw so clearly in the artwork. 

Or put it another way:  a truly great artist has the vision, and manages to make that vision into an image so strong and real that we ourselves see it, so that the vision becomes part of our understanding of reality; it makes us more fully human.

And Thami Mnyele was, -- or I should rather say is, because these works are still here living with us -- a truly great artist.   I could try speaking all sorts of words to describe that vision.  But these words can never tell you what you will learn when you take time to seriously look at these works on display here.


So, instead of trying to analyse the art, I would like to speak a little about what  Thami’s artwork contributes to our community, our society, our culture – and indeed I would say, to our humanity.    For Thami’s work belongs to people here – this city of Eurkhuleni, the place he called home – but it also belongs and speaks to all of us who live in this world.

Thami created this art as part of a broad and vibrant cultural movement that emerged within the struggle for national liberation. 

.  In 1982, thousands of cultural workers came together in Gaborone, to hold a conference on Culture and Resistance. Thami Mnyele was Chair of the conference, a key member of the collective that organized it, and a leading voice on the role of culture in our changing society.

One of the crucial ideas that emerged from this cultural movement was the position that all products of arts and culture – in all forms, dance, music, poetry, theatre, the visual arts – are the creation of a collective, of a community. We need to look at art as a communication between people, as building our understanding as a group.  To do this, we need to look at three aspects of the art: 

The first is the vision of the artist – but the artist as part of the community who nurtured him, not as genius or madman or saint.  The second is the actual work:  how the work is constructed, skills and technique and symbol and image.  The third is the audience:  every work of art is interpreted by the person who sees it, in terms of their own history and their own experience.

This cultural movement  believed art must be an expression of the people, for the people, by the people.  Thami  said: 

“For me as crafsman, the act of creating art should compliment the act of creating shelter for my family or liberating the country for my people.  This is culture.”

This approach to art argues that in pre-colonial African cultures,  making art was an integral part of how a person lived.  Thami also wrote: 

“the existence of Art for Arts sake was never there in our African traditional society.  We know songs and artwork which were created respectively for a particular event or action –   harvest song,  dancing mask, praise singing.  A musician would play his instrument for inspiration or relaxation, just as he would harvest his crops when they were ripe  -- or take up arms if his wellbeing was threatened….”

But, Thami argued, under apartheid, and indeed throughout this globalised modern world, what we call art has been taken far away from our daily lives.  Pictures hang in galleries and museums where most people never see them.   Pictures are sold to the rich for more than a working person earns in a year, to remain hidden in their private living rooms. Thami spoke in outrage about how art is taken away from the community, even from the people who made it:

“I would like to comment on the outlets of artwork in South Africa; namely, the galleries and museums and also the critics who influence the forms and content of art in my country.  These institutions are nothing else but agents of imperialist institutions in London, Paris, New York … it is the tastes and wants of these business institutions and critics which decide which work will be exhibited, and bought, and which cultural worker will be regarded as a success… Artists in South Africa are greatly exploited by these institutions which also contribute to the element of alienation of the artist from the community, which communities in the first place make them and nourish them…. This cruel and vicious cycle is explicitly reflected in the works of the artists through meaningless distortions of limbs and bodies; with the deliberate shrouding of images in mystery.  That then is the hopeless state of art in my country.”

Thami rejected the approach that an artist make art to make money.  Rather, he search for ways to create art for his people, for his community.  He made posters, graphics, illustrations for magazines and books, banners; as well as drawings.  These images would be put up on walls, carried at meetings, sent out as leaflets passing from hand to hand.   He wrote:

“The musicians of the fifties had not “integrated” into the community – they were the community itself.  The community produced songs about the sudden ban of the African brew by the government; the community performed at a child baptismal ceremony, and the commuity still performs at the funeral of a deceased member.  Wouldn’t it be good if I designed posters for these activities, painted banners, made postcards, Christmas cards, and taught these skills to those who need them?”

This commitment also brought changes to artistic style and content.    He spoke of developing a “simple and clear style”, that would give a voice to his people. He pointed out: “The intention is to communicate as immediately as possible and with more people all the time.”

And all this infused and inspired the work we see here, in this exhibition.

But today – twenty two years after his death – certain people who consider themselves art critics have tried to divide Thami’s artwork into two stages.  They say,  that in the first phase -- especially in the 1970s – he did “fine arts”.  They point to those intricate pen and ink works from his early exhibitions; with images which hint at symbols and suggestions rather than shout out at you.  This pictures, those critics insist, we should call his “real art”.  In the second phase of his work, they argue, Thami got seduced by political interests away from making real art, to do graphics and posters.  They label these later works as propaganda and advertising, and suggest we treat them almost as a betrayal of his earlier promise.

But I promise you, Thami would have been outraged by that analysis.  He would have reminded us that we must not let people who are not part of our community tell us what our art is about.

Dismissing pictures as advertising and propaganda suggests that the artist is only pushing a line, that he does not sincerely believe in what his picture says, that he is trying to trick people into taking something perhaps a bit doubtful.  But Thami maintained firmly that he made those political images and graphics with the same love, the same care, and with the same  conviction and indeed faith, as any works he had made to hang in galleries – or no, rather, he made them with more love, and more belief, and more emotion.     These are works of the most fundamental personal integrity. They express his deepest commitments and understandings

Let me give a few examples. 

Thami made a poster for the ANC in 1984, which was put forward by the ANC as “Year of the Women.”  The poster shows a 1952 photograph of Viola Hashe, a trade union leader and ANC activist, speaking to a mass meeting during f the 1952 Defiance campaign  in Red Square in Fordsburg – this place is now a parking lot for the Oriental Plaza.  The words on the poster are a quote from Samora Machel: they read:  our task is “to organize our womenfold into a powerful, united and active force for revolutionary change.  This task falls on men and women alike – all of us as comrades.”  Each aspect of this poster was thought through, and debated, and worked over – even to highlighting the colours of the ANC flag flying overhead.  The poster stands as an icon for women in South Africa and all over the world, precisely because of it gives form and voice to the particular history, the specific visual vocabulary, the heritage of events and ideas and beliefs, that we as women and men living in South Africa share.
A second example:  the December 16th Heroes Day poster of a guerilla, a cadre in uniform, carrying a gun, reaching out to a young child and an older man.  The words Thami put on this poster come from another son of Erkhululeni, OR Tambo; they were part of the 1983 January 8th speech, celebrating the ANC’s New Year.   They say:  “let us arm ourselves with the fearlessness of Shaka; the vision and endurance of Moshoeshoe; the dedication and farsightedness of Sol Plaatjie; the military initative and guerilla tactics of Maquoma…”  Again, the image on this poster reflects the full extent of Thami’s artistic skill: the initial drawing consisted of clearly drawn lines, but there was a problem with the first attempt to print the silkscreen, and the lines began to wash away.  So he used one of those first failed, unclear prints as the background, drawing with ink back into the half-washed out image– a image that whispers to us of still-to-be-fulfilled hopes and ideals, of the promise of the  soldier of the people.

And let us look at the long flowing “narrative” pen and ink drawings Thami did in the years before he died.  Here, he discovers new ways to evoke a sense of time and sequence on the static, two-dimensional paper.  Time and sequence are essential to narration, to movement, change and transformation.   Historically, Western European painting and drawing traditions take the moment taken out of time,  away from movement and change – most commonly, a snapshot of a scene or a portrait.   Thami quite explicitly set out to find a visual means that could show that sense of time and sequence, of change and transformation, on a flat, unmoving paper.

It takes both vision and  courage to make art that speaks to each and every one of us; especially during a time of repression and suffering.  Thami’s vision and courage gives spirit to the art that hangs in this exhibition today.  Thami’s vision and courage led him into exile, to joining Umkhonto we Sizwe, and to his death in the Gaborone raid.  This too forms an inseparable part of his art, and of the heritage we have received from Thami Mnyele.

As my last point here, I would like to respond to those who look at these works, and see only weapons of war, and the ugliness of violence; people who say – now our country is free, we must let this fall away.  It should not be part of our new world.  Unlike the critics who say this work was propaganda, not art, this arises from the issues and conditions that we face today.

Remember that the phrase “Culture is a Weapon of Struggle” emerged out of a specific context.  Thami’s opening speech to the Culture and Resistance conference described that context, using the words of the German poet Bertold Brecht: 

“Truly I live in dark times! 
A guileless word is folly.  A smooth forehead
Betokens insensitiveness.  He who laughs
Has not yet heard the terrible news.

“What an age is this,
when to speak of trees is almost a crime,
for it is silence about innumerable outrages..”

In those terrible times, culture became a tool to mobilize, to organize, to make people see and hear and feel that vision of a united, democratic and free South Africa.  Thami says this directly:

“Let us dip our brushes into bold colours of paint and confidence, and let us all attack our walls with murals, posters, writings, cartoons; all soaked in the conscious language of revolution.  We must restore dignity to the visual arts.  The writing is on the wall.”

But now, when our world has so basically changed?  I would suggest we look at another saying, from another time – the one that says:  “We shall beat our swords into ploughshares”.

This statement does not say we must simply drop the sword, let it rust forgotten in the mud, and maybe cut a child’s foot sometime in the future.  Rather, we need to work over the metal, the blade, with all the strength and the skills and the fire of our lives, to shape tools that we need today.  We need to beat this weapon into a ploughshare. 

So I would like to conclude with an abrupt shift in metaphors.  I quote these  words  that Thami Mnyele wrote in 1984:

“Today walls are furiously burning, blown up.  Our people are cleansing themselves of the culture of silence, wherein to exist is only to live: thinking is difficult, speaking the word forbidden...  Tomorrow, when our people rebuild those walls, our understanding, our history, our victory will be part of that reconstruction.“

Today, here and now, we are beginning to build walls, as shelter for our people, and for our humanity.  Thami proposes that our understanding, our history, and our victory must become part of these walls.

And in specific, this astonishingly rich heritage of artworks of Thami Mnyele, that we celebrate here today, must be one of the foundation stones.

Thank you.