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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.

I sense, however, that taking up a position in an uber fashionable Cape Town gallery would conflict with his idea of what being an artist is. He believes “art is about myth creation. There is no absolute truth so you have to create your own one.” However, he quite enjoys the myth of the artist too – as this lone figure looming on the periphery.

The growing popularity of contemporary art in this country (and elsewhere in the world) has changed the position of the artist. Art is, er... mainstream. Yet it is not just artists like Mthiyane who want to hold onto this idea of artists as struggling outsiders. We, the public, art consumers do too. The aggressive capitalist ethos, which has us monetizing every aspect of our lives, has increased the need for these figures who appear to live outside this system – and maybe even corrupt it. I am thinking here of Blank Project’s Turiya Mgadelela who makes abstract works with women’s stockings, rewriting the purpose of a mass-produced object. She puts the human-quota back into these things that appear so distanced from humanity and its issues.

The mythical, mystical visceral experiences that canvases and texitle art document and substantiate, particularly the abstract ones, present an escape from mass produced clean objects that we typically aspire to owning or collect. Mthiyane’s art offers this in bucketloads; with creases, dark splodges, safety pins and torn fabrics crudely fused to form a square shaped canvas he appears to be offering us something second-hand, worn, corrupted and battered. These rough, though often brightly coloured mixed media type paintings and collages appear to be the product of a REAL gritty existence and not one lived out in a cookie-cutter cluster home filled with mass produced furniture made by underpaid workers in India.

We want to feel better about the world we live in.

This is may be why we are turning to art and artists. They appear to offer a reprieve from everything, particularly in rough abstract artworks that serve as a reminder that beauty, imperfection and all sorts of other things exist beyond digital universes and that seemingly inescapable work-consumption cycle. They appear to inject a little bit of old fashioned ‘soul’ as the title of Mthiyane’s show suggests into our homes, lives and existence. First published in Business Day

  • Soul Songs by Thokozani Mthiyane showed at the Art Eye Gallery, 5th Floor Ellis House, 23 Voorhout Street, New Doornfontein. For more information visit


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