“If humans were quiet, and they listened deeply – they would hear inanimate objects speak”, says Nigerian artist Peju Alatise, when describing her exhibition ‘Wrapture: A Story of Cloth’ in 2014 where sculptural works resemble or allude to the human form. These were merely made from cloth. Alatise takes out the human form and only leaves their aura behind. Her work is one of many examples, where an artist convinces us to pay attention to the inanimate object.
The beauty which unfolds itself while we engage with the artworks, emanates from the fact that the inanimate object still manages to tell us about the human it interacted with, and the traces left behind. Despite itself, the object that was touched and interfered with always manages to tell us something about the presence that animated it.
So begins our journey with the artist of discussion in this article, Thokozani Mthiyane and his series of cultivated curiosities, that are currently in continuous production in his Johannesburg studio. Forever on the move and raptured into a need to create, Mthiyane proves to be a figure of great intrigue. Unpacking his creative process has been a fascinating journey. Through former understandings of African cultural history, and examples in African innovative art-making, we try to find an entry point to unpacking the mysterious, simple and captivating process of Thokozani Mthiyane’s ‘masks’ and how they tell a story of interaction with inanimate objects.
Thokozani Mthiyane’s Mask Series:
The Transcendence of the African Spirit at the core of Artmaking
We would like to share with you today, a series of 14 masks, a total of 14 small sculptural works by Thokozani Mthiyane.
In first seeing these 14 assembled objects, we are offered a series of amalgamated compositions largely of industrial elements or products. Very quickly, there is an evident anthropomorphism that appears in each of these ‘universal portraits’. The most recent of these are made in a fascinating series of self-portraits, amongst others, made by Thokozani during the lockdown. The latter guides us towards the essence of being and the artist towards a cathartic introspection. Day after day, Thokozani seizes found objects, with care, desire, love or necessity, from the darkness of his studio, a space of intimacy for him.
It is through the nature of these elements that this series of masks is autobiographical. Each of these masks have participated towards his work, his emotions, his sorrows, as they did in his ecstasies. They somehow became accomplices of his becoming.
However, Thokozani never tries at any moment to undertake any particular resemblance to his own traits. It is of the ‘African Man’ that he makes this series of portraits.
To better explore these works, let us address these two words as a point of entry:
‘African’: this is the first word that comes to mind when describing these assemblages – these three-dimensional collages, these “faces”. However very few of the elements of the compositions, assembled with talent, despair and virtuosity, are in fact native to the African continent.
These elements, largely from the industrial era, do not originate from our continent. After colonisation, the Europeans, before the Americans or Chinese, continued their expansionism through a new wave: They seized Africa as a potential new market for the surplus of their industrial production. To read more about this we invite you to follow the link to Littered Africa one of our previous articles.
Colonisation did not steal the essence of the African spirit. Similarly the German soldiers could take almost everything from the Jewish prisoners during the horror of the Second World War but could never take away the notes of Mozart’s music echoing in their soul. In the same way, neither colonisation nor industrialization, both of which both have left deep scars in Africa, will be able to destroy the spirit of the continent that saw the birth of homo sapiens. Through these masks, Thokozani offers us a triumphant Africanism. It is indeed the latter which emanates from these works.
The same resilient songs made their appearance in the artworks by many artists, including Kagiso Patrick Mautloa, to name but one, who reworks the “jerrican” in its many forms to give us another series of masks
The second word we will address in this article is the word “Man”: This is the word “man” in its broadest sense, encompassing all forms of humanity. Thokozani, in celebrating his African membership, universalizes these self-portraits by the selection of the assembled elements, which are traces of his artmaking, his life, and of the studio’s energy. These become self-portraits of the only race to which we all belong, the human race.
We have selected 14 of Thokozani’s masks, to share with you the ‘Stations of the Cross’ of our human condition (See link here). In this journey, the cross remains ours to bear.
It was a privilege to virtually meet Thokozani. We look forward our future encounter once the global circumstances allow us to do so.
Meet Thokozani Mthiyane
Thokozani Mthiyane is a Johannesburg based artist represented by ArtEye Gallery. Mthiyane grew up in Cleremont Township near Durban, where after leaving school he would pass time in the studios of artists Sfiso KaMkame and Thami Jali, watching them work. He has been largely influenced by his time spent under the tutelage of artists Sfiso KaMkame and Thami Jali.
Mthiyane has experience 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.