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Is art meant to deliver us from consumerism, capitalism?

Art commentators probably shouldn’t wonder why art is so popular, or maybe that is our burden. Nevertheless it is a question that pops up periodically and I can’t shake it as the old lift slithers up to the fifth floor of Ellis House in Joburg. This is the ideal location in which to pose this question, as the building, which surely had been written-off by property developers - Ellis Park is home to students, sports lovers, low-cost housing and panel beaters. Courtesy of all the artist studios it contains, art has breathed life into this building. It houses two galleries; Room, is located on the ground floor and there is Art Eye Gallery, my destination. Not only are people consuming contemporary art like never before, but because of this more and more people are pursuing art making as a career. Art Eye owes its existence to both, as well as its owner Tyrone Selmon’s, idiosyncratic concept of a gallery, as a massive rambling space encompassing a lounge, artist studios and open spaces for artists to perform – paint.

Few of the artists aligned to Art Eye have followed the usual route. Some are untrained, have been overlooked or have taken very winding roads to making art. Thokozani Mthiyane, who is showing a solo exhibition in the gallery until the end of September, falls into all the above categories. In the short filmed interview with him that is screened in a back room of the gallery, it comes to light that he is a prodigious reader shaped by a mishmash of inspiring words penned by the likes of TS Eliot to Kandinsky. This has all guided Mthiyane to a place where he believes in the power of art to heal the self and an understanding that art is all about imbuing ordinary objects with mystical or mythical qualities.

These are all useful ideas for an artist to grasp. Who are we to deny that in covering canvases with paint, Mthiyane’s wounds are not healed? In this way his art is irrefutably legitimate, successful regardless of whether its composition is striking or not. The titles of the many abstract works, Trauma, Turmoil and Heal, literally relay his art’s therapeutic purpose. This does sort of interfere with his desire to create an air of mystery around his work, which should be upheld by his abstract collage type medium. Sometimes he paints on disused textiles, and more often than not, he collages strips of textiles into the works. Safety pins are also combined into the compositions, adding a slightly punk feel to his Basquiat type vibe.

It is not suprising that Mthiyane has existed on the periphery of the art world, his art is almost fashionable. Textile abstraction is right on the money. If he distilled his vocabulary and had a good backstory about the found objects and disused fabrics he works with, he could probably find a niche for himself.