Elevate Difference

Art + Revolution: The Life and Death of Thami Mnyele, South African Artist

It should be of no surprise that some of the most peaceful and timid visionaries have met violent deaths. It seems that the power with which they create, forge, or even love is equal to that which opposes their very existence. Diana Wylie captures one such figure with Art + Revolution

With the many changes that have taken place in the United States in the past few years, it would be easy and even relieving for some to forget the far-reaching struggles that helped to bring those changes about. Wylie's self-acknowledged humility realized through the stark differences between her and Mnyele's plight gives the reader a chance to put an artistic and sensitive face to the struggle against South African apartheid. 

Perhaps Thami Mnyele’s birthplace of Alexandra Township in Johannesburg, and its ruthless violence, was enough for the universe to bring about such an overwhelmingly sensitive man. Despite whatever created this sensitivity, it was Thami’s lens with which to create art that reflected not only the macrocosmic monstrosity that racism produced, but also the microcosmic manifestations of South Africa's participation.  Microcosm is a misnomer considering the impact apartheid had on Mnyele and how it limited his ability to move within his own country. These limitations would find Mnyele and his comrades finding both solace and artistic inspiration in the workings of jazz musicians like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker and writers like Wole Soyinka and Frantz Fanon—people who shared similar struggles thousands of miles away.

It wasn't just a kinship with people of similar skin tones or even plights, but also with artists, such as Van Gogh, Michelangelo, and even Vietnamese poets that inspired Mnyele to dig deep within the confines of his sensitivity to reveal the reality he wanted his art to convey. Even still, it was the death of friend and countryman Steve Biko that served as a political turning point for Mnyele and his artistic purpose. Mnyele's art seems to leave enough openness to interpretation while using that same openness to convey a sense of the freedom he fought so unassumingly for. 

Despite Wylie's "fragmented" account of Mnyele's life story she still leaves us with enough insight into the life of a man whose artwork details through each piece, his struggle to and for an understanding of a psyche confined by the limits of hatred and its imposition on a people. It is so difficult to sum up the impact of someone’s life in a book, but Wylie beautifully opens us to the continual artistic profundity each time we Thami Mnyele's name.

Written by: Olupero R. Aiyenimelo, February 27th 2009