Dathini Mzayiya: Letting the music take him

POSTED ON: February 23, 2021 IN Ben Verghese, On Artists, Word View

by Ben Verghese

At the 1978 Jazz Festival Willisau (Switzerland), Johnny Mbizo Dyani, best known as a member of the Blue Notes, closed his solo concert with a song, Let the Music Take You.[1] Out of a circling piano melody Dyani sings: “Music is love, everybody knows. Let the music take you!” it is believed that a year earlier, when in Lagos at Festac ’77, Dyani was recruited by the ANC to represent the organisation from his sites of exile in Scandinavia. Almost nine months after Dyani’s Willisau gig, Dathini Mzayiya was born in Komani (then Queenstown) in the Eastern Cape.

Like his compatriot, Mzayiya makes art that blurs the lines between political action and music; their music and artmaking are political acts. This essay focuses on a selection of artworks and projects composed by Mzayiya between 2012 and 2018, years in which the artist lived in Cape Town. Underscoring this reading is recognition of the musicality reverberating through Mzayiya’s practice and his continued engagement with collective/conversational experimentations with musicians.

While researching this text, it has become evident that, considering the two decades he has been active, there is a shortfall of critical engagement with Dathini Mzayiya’s art. This speaks in part to how a whitewashed visual arts industry privileges artists represented by commercial galleries (operating hand in glove with a circuit of local and international media and publicists) over artists attached to collective studios and community arts centres.[2] Working outside the commercial gallery system, Mzayiya has been a studio resident at Greatmore Studios (Cape Town) and now at the Bag Factory (Johannesburg), two institutions that form part of the Triangle Network. Further in-depth consideration of institutions Mzayiya has worked with/in would likely highlight an important pathway of arts education in southern Africa, however, this text is not such a thesis. In cultural worth as well as financial flows, an undervaluing of Mzayiya’s art, along with fellow artists who taught and studied at the Community Arts Project (CAP) in Cape Town is a point noted by Emile Maurice when reviewing a 2013 panel discussion organised by the Centre for Humanities Research (CHR) at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and Iziko Museums titled “What do we mean by ‘hidden voices’ in the arts after apartheid?”[3] Mzayiya also participated in the “hidden voices” discussion and the fond support he has shared with artist/educator Maurice is a connection I shall return to.

Of the few readings by writers and critics on Mzayiya’s art, most highlight his political consciousness and desire for social justice as displayed across a range of visual media. This essay also recognises the artist’s nuanced socio-political commentary but the foremost intent of this text is to try and allow the music(ality) to be acknowledged and heard. At times, the musicality in Mzayiya’s art is audible, at others it might seem out of earshot, but it is always pulsing under the surface of charcoal or paint on the canvas. By looking at, or rather, listening closely to a handful of projects, a distinctive voice emerges as Mzayiya approaches a canvas, or sculpture, or audio-visual project. Now, as Johnny Dyani sung, let us let the music take us, to the opening of Mzayiya’s solo exhibition at Greatmore Studios in February 2013.

Trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni and pianist Nicholas Williams are duetting in the courtyard of Greatmore. Under corrugated tin and plastic roof, the duo traverses a set of liberation songs. Soon after, Professor Premesh Lalu offers a short speech. “If I say that Dathini’s work is larger than life,” Lalu says, “I mean that the work functions, in every conceivable way as a history of the present, and more.” Three reasons follow: “Firstly, Dathini’s work asks how the post-apartheid came to be what it is, and not something different. Secondly, through the work of art, he asks what has become of the human condition after apartheid. Thirdly, he asks how we re-assemble the resources for a different concept of life after apartheid.”[4]

Returning to the then present of early 2013, the massacre of workers on strike at Marikana was fresh in mind. A century on from the 1913 Land Act (and the lesser recognised centenary of the South African Police), this cloud hung in the sky erasing rose-tinted reconciliatory narratives of rainbowism. The phrase white monopoly capital had begun to snowball in usage as a catchment term for the post-1994 system of oppression and social inequalities experienced by the majority of South Africans. The exhibition’s title: Onder Die Reënboog Strale/ Under the Rainbow Rays/ Phantsi Kwelitha Lomgcamabala highlighted an imbalance of power as does the hierarchical ordering of the three languages from Afrikaans to English and (only) then isiXhosa. New to the city and moved by attending the opening, I contacted Mzayiya with some questions. “Under the Rainbow Rays is an imaginary ‘Intsomi’/folktale,” he told me, “[It is] the fairy tale of the ‘Rainbow Nation’, [and] even my grandmother would tell a better one to us as kids.”[5] Poet Rustum Kozain once called out the rainbow metaphor, writing: “The metaphor was empty and twee from the start. It stuck in my craw from the get-go back in the 1990s, just like ‘New South Africa’. Empty slogans from unimaginative marketers. … Rainbow metaphors are for Disney cartoons … A country is not a Disney cartoon.” [6] The rainbow as a fiction is picked up on by Athi Mongezeleli Joja in his review of the exhibition, “Could it be that Mzayiya doesn’t believe in the mythologised Rainbow? A resounding ‘yes’ is the answer.”[7] And yet, despite his critique of the rainbowism myth, Mzayiya maintained an interest in the imagery:

The rainbow’s mysterious beauty blends colour through prisms of water and sunlight. The [exhibition] title suggests a critical observational point of view on this biblical illusion of the rainbow as a state of the nation which post-apartheid national identity has been imagined and based on. Yet it has been imposed as a political image of reconciliation and as a theological sign of hope and peace. Whilst marginalised South Africans continue to be victims of a racialised and structural violence that marks everyday social and economic interactions.[8]

When asked to share further thoughts on his choice of title, Mzayiya responded by saying:

[It] came after some time spent at my studio and a series of conversations with fellow artists and other people at bus stops, social bars and theatres. The process has been of reflecting, deconstructing, collecting of materials, re-analysing and re-imagining in order to gain a sense of understanding of the everyday life of modern-day South Africa.[9]

Of the social bars Mzayiya mentioned, there are two he frequented, which at that point in time were culturally thriving on a small street (Trill Road) off Lower Main Road in the southern suburb of Observatory (Obs): Tagore’s Jazz Bar and Café Ganesh. The critic/essayist Ashraf Jamal, a regular at Ganesh, referred to both venues in a short text accompanying Victor Ehikhamenor’s exhibition also at Greatmore in 2016. In a scene similar to Mzayiya’s Rewinding at the End of Day (from 2005),  Jamal connected the two Obs venues to Alex La Guma’s description of “pub life” in A Walk In The Night  writing how they are/were “places for debate and discussion, for the exchange of views and opinions, for argument and for the working out of problems … a forum, a parliament, a fountain of wisdom and a cess pool of nonsense.ʼ”[10]

After Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, we can call this way of working out, study or black study, as Moten expands upon in the three-way conversation (with Stevphen Shukaitis) in The Undercommons: “When I think about the way we use the term ʻstudy,ʼ I think we are committed to the idea that study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice. The notion of a rehearsal – being in a kind of workshop, playing in a band, in a jam session, or old men sitting on a porch, or people working together in a factory – there are these various modes of activity. The point of calling it ʻstudyʼ is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities is already present. … To do these things is to be involved in a kind of common intellectual practice.” [11]

Rewinding at the End of the Day, 2005 (Image courtesy the artist).

In the cramped outdoor/smoking area of Tagore’s, squashed between the two adjoining properties, was a mural Mzayiya painted with the late Unathi Sigenu, a friend and fellow member of Gugulective (an art collective of which he is/was a part). This wall painting depicted iconic (creative) intellectuals Patrice Lumumba, Steve Biko, Che Guevara, Frida Kahlo, Fela Kuti, Brenda Fassie and Marvin Gaye in an imagined scene. Functioning as a cultural hub, or “shebeen as college of music”, Tagore’s allowed likeminded spirits to hang out and feel/listen to the music filling the small, red-walled rooms.[12] There Mzayiya met and socialised/studied with Mlangeni as well as the guitarist Reza Khota, both of whom he has open collaborative engagements with.

At Under the Rainbow Rays, an understated drawing suggested the presence of music in the room as Mzayiya works. Titled The Radio, the one and a half metre squared canvas shows a small portable stereo placed on top of an upturned crate. Within the exhibition it is a rare example of a work which does not convey a human form, although there is an anthropomorphic, or robotic, quality to the stereo with its two dials seen as eyes. Drawn in black charcoal, the lines are typically cutting, jutting into the canvas, marks struck with such force it is a wonder how they manage to come together to create a recognisable image. Smudged charcoal and chalked white lines add shadow and depth. We see the skirting board of the room, highlighted with a single strip of red. We are looking down into the corner of the room. Perhaps the artist has turned momentarily as he attends to another painting and was taken aback by the simple beauty of the setup. Perhaps he was reaching to alter the soundtrack to the room. What was the artist listening to? The Radio prompts us to question who and what we are tuned in to. It leads to enquiries on media ownership (and archives), the contrasts between state, private/corporate and community broadcasters. To questions how consent is manufactured and how new myths are spread.

The Radio, 2013. Charcoal and powder paint on paper, 150 x 150 cm (Image courtesy of the artist).

The colour palette for The Radio – black, white, greys and red – is emblematic of the Under the Rainbow Rays exhibition. This same combination of colours was used as the basis for later collaboration between Mzayiya the visual artist and Mlangeni the musician. Emerging from a friendship and ongoing discussions (mostly on music and ideas of liberation) between the two artists, between 2013 and 2015, Mzayiya drew portraits of the pianist Andile Yenana and drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo for concerts Mlangeni organised at a Cape Town restaurant True Italic. The Yenana artwork circulated in local press as publicity material.[13] At some point in this audio-visual duet, Mzayiya made a poster for one of Mlangeni’s bands, Amandla Freedom Ensemble.

Emulating the aesthetic of posters produced at Community Arts Project (CAP) in the 1980s and early 1990s, Mzayiya created a new composition. This image features a crowd of raised fists, clenched or clutching instruments: a trumpet, a saxophone, a clarinet (or perhaps vuvuzela). The lines are black with subtle shades of blue. Above them a black flag waves demanding “The Music Shall Govern.” These fists are marching, toyi-toying for freedom. Later, these fists would be deep-etched from the whole composition to feature as the artwork for Amandla Freedom Ensemble’s debut album Bhekisizwe.[14] The record features a live recording of Zim’s Whim, a composition written by Mlangeni in Mzayiya’s living room.[15]

Amandla Freedom Ensemble Poster.

Perhaps the same fists would replace their instruments with stones if needed, as Mzayiya did in the painting Armed Response. The fist in Armed Response differs stylistically from those in the Amandla Freedom Ensemble graphic. In part this is a contrast between the use of oil paint rather than charcoal and the realism oils can generate. Like protestors throwing rocks, Armed Response utilises and repurposes (or remixes) a found object – a branded sign for an armed private security. The familiarity of these hoardings, frequently displayed on houses in suburbs (gated or fenced) in South Africa, is reminiscent of the matters of (in)security written about by Ivan Vladislavic in Portrait with Keys.[16] The painting forms part of a series Mzayiya developed in conversation with the collectives Burning Museum and Xcollektiv to speak back to the gentrification in Woodstock (Cape Town) which had visibly altered the neighbourhood.

“The signs are like traffic lights,” he told me, “[indicating] where to go, where not to go.”[17] Do these signs function as a contemporary equivalent to “Slegs Blankes”?[18] What is the artist suggesting by the hand being melanin deficient?

Armed Response, 2012. Oil on board, 50 x 41 cm (Image courtesy the artist).

“The fist, of course,” writes Emile Maurice, “is a symbol of popular left-wing revolt across the world and came to represent agitation and defiance against apartheid during the liberation struggle in South Africa. In the work by [Robert] Siwangaza, made sometime in the 1980s, the fist is set in a cultural context, denoting the idea of ʻculture as resistance, or art as a weapon against apartheid.”[19] The artwork discussed by Maurice is a linocut Siwangaza made of a right hand gripping a pencil, paint brush and a twin end ribbon clay cutting tool. As with the raised fists of Mzayiya for Amandla Freedom Ensemble, the image by Siwangaza was reworked to function and circulate outside its initial context. Entering the frame from the bottom right corner, the Siwangaza linocut hand was used by Lionel Davis to advertise CAP’s tenth anniversary celebrations at Khayelitsha Civic, featuring on a Pan-Arab coloured (red, green and white) silkscreen poster. With three (cultural) workers holding a huge flag/banner declaring “Our Culture Our Strength”, the poster bears an older sibling-like resemblance to Mzayiya’s.[20]

Following Emile Maurice’s appointment as the first convenor of the Factory of the Arts – an initiative of the CHR – soon came an invitation for Mzayiya to undertake an artist-in-residence fellowship (which began formally in 2015).  Mzayiya’s arrival in this site of academic-arts-activism coincided with countrywide fallist movements challenging a lack of transformation on campuses and across society. At the Factory of the Arts, Mzayiya was able to spend time with guitarist Reza Khota who he had previously befriended from Tagore’s. A fellow inaugural artist-in-residence at CHR’s developing initiative, Khota occupied a room above Mzayiya’s in the St Phillip’s Church building on Chapel Street, Woodstock (bordering or in District Six). Poetically, this building was also home to CAP in the 1980s and, while the revolutionary spirits of that time had dampened somewhat (and pigeons had literally come to roost in the roof), sharing premises helped foster collaboration. With a mutual commitment to experimental collaborative practice, Mzayiya and Khota recognised that this period was a heightened moment for artists to work in solidarity with students and workers agitating for transformation (of university campuses and wider society). Khota expands on their coming together:

[T]he space at Chapel Street was a brilliant space for creative/social experimentation. Initially Dathini would work downstairs in his room and I would practise upstairs and we would just chat and hang out in between. Dathini’s room was always the gathering space for everyone. Friends, fellow artists and family were always passing through. I think we had some early collabs with his live painting but this soon changed with the addition of contact mics to the canvas. I’m not sure if Dathini had the soundcanvas idea before this, but he attended a show that I performed with Daniel Gray and Abraham Mennen around that early period at True Italic in which Daniel had built some interactive instruments using contact mics and some effects processing. It was after this that Dathini started using the mics and getting really inspired by the sonic aspect of his gestural and expressive interaction with the canvas. We then began doing a series of improvisations together, both with and without an audience and some video recording.[21]

The soundcanvas Khota mentions above has become a prominent component in Mzayiya’s artmaking. Developing a technique/craft he calls musidrawology, the percussive qualities there when Mzayiya apply marks to a canvas can now be heard. As he puts it, “mark-making is projected into a sound.”[22] This collaboration also saw Mzayiya shift from creating work in studios (or in situ) which is then exhibited to creating in a performance context. One early audio-visual exploration came in early 2016 for a project/duet titled Homeless Dreams. A video of the project (by Herman van Wyk) opens with a quote of Frantz Fanon’s chalked on a blackboard in Mzayiya’s Factory of the Arts studio. Fanon’s words, from “Concerning Violence” in The Wretched of the Earth, present the famous line: “The first thing which the native learns is to stay in his place, and not to go beyond certain limits.”[23] Mzayiya’s openness to collaboration with Khota, as well as enrolment at different times on animation or graphic design courses, illustrates his refusal to be limited by tight parameters of what it means to be a fine or applied artist. The line in The Wretched of the Earth preceding the quote Mzayiya wrote in white chalk reads: “The native is a being hemmed in; apartheid is simply one form of the division into compartments of the colonial world.”[24] Reading Fanon’s words (albeit in translation) four years on from Homeless Dreams and sixty since Fanon wrote them, as we live under conditions of “lockdown”, there is a reminder that systems of population control tested through the violence of colonial rule have become part of everyday life. The coupling of apartheid and colonial eras into the continuum colonial-apartheid by Thembinkosi Goniwe makes sense when considering the world (and conditions) in which Mzayiya makes his art.[25] When asked about Homeless Dreams, Mzayiya expressed how:

“[The title] became a working theme after observing a group of youngsters, a small community residing under the bridge that passes near the studio towards N2. I was privileged to forge contact with them after I noticed they were being harassed by city law enforcers demolishing their temporary small structures which they called home. These youngsters would help out with cleaning in some houses in the neighbourhood even at our building just to get food. I had a window into their reality and stories which triggered the entire story of District Six and my studio included. The link was there, the typical history of Cape Town, the black fugitive life and homelessness.[26]

Dathini Mzayiya and Reza Khota, Improvisation No.3 (Homeless Dreams).

Watching the video documentation of Homeless Dreams and continuing to think with Moten and Harney, we see how Mzayiya’s Factory of the Arts studio functioned as a site of collective (black) study. Mzayiya shared his experience of the duet with Khota:

“[T]he drawings started in abstraction, led by Reza’s improvised guitar strings with the movement of my hand and the amplified sound of charcoal on paper. There is a feeling of suspense, we have our eyes and ears to each other in anticipation of the next move. The layering and manipulation of sound, tuning and the drawing builds up in layers of greys and black. This goes on like sparring until we are in a harmonious flow. I get swallowed in by the layers of charcoal strokes on the white paper, only to notice that I am inside something like an architectural structure, in which I started enhancing and building it inside out.[27]

How does Khota sound to Mzayiya when the latter is swallowed inside the paper? From this interior, how are the audio outputs of Mzayiya sounding to himself and to Khota? Engaging with the recording of this performance (via a laptop), somewhere/how in the drawing I am reminded of the painting by Hargreaves Ntukwana from the cover of Dollar Brand’s Underground in Africa album. Both Mzayiya’s and Ntukwana’s images depict an abstract figure/face and guitar tuning pegs. There is also a curve which resembles a reversed bass clef. It seems worth noting that Ntukwanawasa significant visual artist in the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and as Gwen Ansell reminds us, “a graduate of the Polly Street Art Centre, who had also been a pit musician for the South African run of King Kong.”[28]

In But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, a collection of what the author Geoff Dyer calls “imaginative criticism,” there is a footnote musing on photography. “[P]ictures of jazz musicians,” writes Dyer, “are virtually the only photographic evidence we have of people engaged in the actual creation of art. … A photograph of a jazz musician in full flight can bring us as close to the act – or vicarious essence – of artistic creation as a photograph of an athlete can to the act – or vicarious essence – of running.”[29]

Live painting of jazz or improvising musicians in flight offers another visual practice to provide evidence of “the actual creation of art”. What too of video? Drawn to the music, it makes sense for Mzayiya to draw (or paint) musicians live. When he paints the musicians performing with him, Mzayiya freely forms figures in abstraction rather than as expressionist representations. This practice connects him too to artists elsewhere attempting similar expressions, with two artists adept at live painting active in London (England) worth mentioning: Gina Southgate and Dora Lam. In a more local context, I am reminded of sketches Thami Mnyele made of Hugh Masekela and other musicians at the 1982 Culture and Resistance festival in Gaborone as well recent drawings by Terence Visagie, one of Mzayiya’s contemporaries and another Tagore’s/Ganesh regular.

In July 2016, collaborative session titled People You May Know was organised at the Factory of the Arts. Here Mzayiya participated in a duet on canvas with Thokozani Mthiyane while Khota featured with support from bassist Brydon Bolton and sound-artist Daniel Gray. John Mowitt, a scholar visiting from the University of Leeds wrote about the session (“The Ding in Itself”) and artist Alberta Whittle compiled a short film.[30] Sadly, Emile Maurice passed away a few weeks later. The following month, as a dedication to Maurice, another Factory of the Arts concert/sharing was organised in the memorial hall named after Lydia Williams (a liberated slave and former District Six resident). At this tribute, a portrait of Maurice drawn by Mzayiya and then turned into an animation was projected on a screen behind the area demarcated (but not raised) as a stage. The Reza Khota Quartet – Khota with electric guitar and pedalboard, plus bassist Shane Cooper, drummer Jono Sweetman, and Buddy Wells with tenor sax – played a handful of songs (compositions which later went on to feature on Khota’s album Liminal).[31] Mzayiya was then welcomed to add extra sonic textures, generated from his musidrawological expressions. A one-minute film provides a partial replay of this gathering.

Tribute to Emile, 2016 (Video by Ri’aad Dollie)

As with Homeless Dreams, looking through a small screen at Mzayiya painting, many textures and layers of the visual work are lost. To view Mzayiya’s visual art in a reduced, reproduced form really does not do it justice. Encountered in person, figures edge out of the canvas (which frequently measure one and a half or two metres in height) and the viewer is drawn in. The description Mzayiya gave of being swallowed by layers of charcoal strokes into the drawing’s architecture can be experienced.

In his flow from (or between) painting to live painting and on/into musidrawology, Mzayiya is pursuing a practice which makes the sonic visual and visual sonic. Although it is with his tangible artworks – drawings and paintings which can be hung on walls – for which Mzayiya has established his art practice, his continued experimentation with musidrawology signals a turn toward the terrain of performance art. When Mzayiya is practicing musidrawology he is working/experimenting as a visual artist, an audio-visual artist, and a sound artist, playing with musicians, and making music. Is he therefore (also) a musician? Is the soundcanvas an instrument? A detuned or untuned instrument? A percussion instrument with a palette of sounds including scrapes (at times sawing) from chalk or charcoal or brush on canvas, plus variations of the clangs and clatters that come from hand in contact with the board or easel. The addition of processing these sounds through pedals or other controllers offers unbounded sonic possibilities. In the sounds Mzayiya expresses there are ghosts/echoes as well, for instance, when I tune in to his Homeless Dreams soundings, somewhere I hear the scratchy cymbal strikes (or rimshots?) drummer Okay Temiz makes in the closing third of the song Idyongwanaas while Johnny Dyani and Mongezi Feza (another son of Queenstown) vocalise.[32]

When asked about his collaborations with Mzayiya, Khota is full of praise:

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had time with Dathini. He is one of the warmest souls that I know as well as a brilliant and uncompromising artist with a real sense of social responsibility. Besides the musical and visual ʻjammingʼ, this was a very personal collaboration. Our approach opened the space for our personalities and idiosyncrasies to thrive. I think audiences enjoyed that more than the technical side of the interaction. It was a vibe we were creating! It was also a very different challenge for me to improvise with the visual. In contrast to playing with other musicians who all share in an interactive musical language, I had to come up with my own interpretation of the aesthetic cues and multidisciplinary language, an experience that has helped me greatly in my pursuits as an improviser.[33]

In a conversation for the 2015 exhibition The Freedom Principle (in Chicago, USA), composer and cellist Tomeka Reid said: “Through improvising with others, you can push yourself in new directions, learn different ways of handling situations that can also translate into other parts of your life, because you’re more flexible.”[34] I put Reid’s words to Mzayiya, asking if he considers working with a soundcanvas to be a form of improvisation. “Yes,” he replied:

Tribute to Emile, 2016 (Video by Ri’aad Dollie)

it is improvisation and playing by ear, the idea is to be always in a moment and at times the music can trigger thoughts and visual realisations while trying to be in harmony with other players. I can truly relate to Tomeka Reid’s quote, with the Musidrawology Project the first thing it forces you to do is to get out of your comfort zone and lose individualism into collab[oration]. After this experience possibilities are endless for yourself and your craft.[35]

And so, as well as improvising musically while drawing, Mzayiya’s movement in and between painting, live painting, musidrawology and performance art is also an improvised process. It is a process which involves experimentation, mishaps and figuring out through doing. The residency at the Factory of the Arts incubated these processes and since moving on from his fellowship at CHR, new work has emerged. One musidrawological work, titled Portrait of a Revolutionary, feels as though everything that has led to this moment has been a necessary rehearsal.

In this nine-minute edit, we encounter Dathini Mzayiya joined by his sister, Thumeka Mzayiya. When the title page cuts to the performance, my attention is first caught by Thumeka’s vocalising. Akin to how Kodwo Eshun has written (on/with Black Audio Film Collective’s work) the sound arrives before the image.[36] As our eyes take in all that is closed into the frame, we have already been struck by the frequencies of Thumeka’s voice duetting with reverberating rattles and scrapes from Dathini working the canvas and easel. I am reminded that Uhuru Phalafala taught me that the Sesotho and Setswana word utlwa translates into English as both hearing and feeling; these sensory/bodily experiences are together, not detached. To the right of the frame, Thumeka is seated facing her older brother. Stage left, Dathini stands close to an A-frame easel with his back toward his sister. A drawing is emerging from the paper, a face drawn in black charcoal. Central to the image, a projection screen has Dathini’s shadow cast on to it, the contours of his silhouette moving as he steps back and forth to develop the drawing. All the while we hear the siblings duetting, tuned into each other; Dathini drawing upon his experiential study with Reza Khota and colleagues, Thumeka on her Jazzart Dance Theatre schooling.

Again, sound precedes image, as we hear Miriam Makeba’s voice before her face appears, projected on the screen. Simultaneously we are transported from Studio 147, Tableview, Cape Town (in 2018) to listening to (and learning from) Makeba in Finland in 1969. Makeba is breaking down the white supremacist colonial project. The archive footage is, I believe, an excerpt from a Finnish television programme (directed by Erkki Vihtonen) titled Miriam Makeba: We Will Win. 1969 is the year of Makeba and Stokely Carmichael’s first anniversary, it is also the year she makes Guinea her home and performs at the First Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algeria. When, at two-minutes into this time-travelling experiment, Makeba is faded out, Thumeka summons breath from deep in her lungs emitting cycles of air, her diaphragm springing rapidly. The breaths invoke Makeba’s circular utterances as heard in versions of the song Amampondo, including a concert in Tokyo in 1968 or the year after at the Algiers festival. Improvising together (sonke) the Mzayiya siblings listen and respond to each other’s calls. Thumeka expresses variations of ukombela, moving between deeply pitched throaty sounds and a high range.[37] As Dathini generates rumbling, scratches and squeaks, his hands catch my eye – the left gripping the edge of canvas and easel while the right impacts on the paper; an ambidextrous action analogous to a right-handed guitarist (or bass player) using their left hand to place tension over the strings while the right strums.

Makeba re-emerges and all three performers – Makeba and the Mzayiya siblings – continue their conversation. Moved by Portrait of a Revolutionary, in a text that disrupts established ways of thinking about Makeba, Lindokuhle Nkosi wrote:

On a screen strewn together from the printed dailies, Miriam speaks, her face as now, as it is then. Current affairs because the newsprint that stains her face tells us so. Current because the context doesn’t change. Because those in power. Because black souls never rest in peace, only pieces.[38]

Nkosi, like Makeba, speaks truth to power and the people, calling out situations, realities, which can be jarring for people accessing white privilege to admit complicity in. Speaking from the screen Makeba reminds us: “The truth shall never be covered by a lie.” Portrait of a Revolutionary emphasises the ongoing struggle(s) for redistribution of land in southern Africa. We hear Makeba tell listeners of the pains of her imposed exile. This edit of the performance work comes to a close with a call to go or come back home. “Buyela ekhaya,” Thumeka sings, come back home. These words (in translation) bring to mind Come Back, Africa, the film directed by Lionel Rogosin that upon screening in Venice in 1959 gave Makeba reason to visit Europe for the first time.

Whereas examples discussed earlier in this essay are acts of collaborative artmaking in which Dathini Mzayiya is being filmed, for Portrait of a Revolutionary, he directs proceedings with support from a crew of friends, family and comrades. He has experimented with video works before. When Mzayiya’s shadow moves in Portrait of a Revolutionary, accentuated by a floor-light pointing upwards, it evokes Umfanekiso (Reflections), a film he made ten years earlier. In 2013, Mzayiya offered comments on the unfinished quality to his imagery: “It is very challenging to deem an art piece finished, because sometimes we have to exhibit them. As an artist you have to learn to trust your instincts and still be in a satisfactory state or confidence for the work to be exhibited either finished or as a work in progress. If the artwork made it back to the studio, chances are that the conversation between the artist and the art piece continues again[M6] .”[39] After spending time with Portrait of a Revolutionary,I asked Mzayiya about this and although this edit (by Nadine Cloete) is ready to be critically engaged with, he acknowledges this project to be a work in progress. The raw material/files exist to be reworked when the moment arises. There are sections of the production which do not feature in this edit, a passage where Thumeka dances and one, perhaps two, more paintings. Additionally, I wonder how it might be to encounter this performance live.

Still from Portrait of a Revolutionary (Image courtesy Noncedo Gxekwa).

There is a part of the interview with Miriam Makeba not used in Portrait of a Revolutionary where Makeba tells the interviewer “We as artists should never close our eyes to what is happening around us.” Mzayiya’s eyes are open, his ears too. As his praxis further engages with music(ians) and sound, he is responding to calls around him. “It was a calling!” He exclaimed, regarding the shift into creating sonic as well as visual works, “[and] in most cases you have to respond to the calling otherwise you might go crazy.”[40] Before assembling a soundcanvas he said signs of what has come (and continues to) were already there, for instance as he listened to the Sun Ra Arkestra, he would listen too to his brush strokes and “felt the harmony”. In Mzayiya’s own words: “Musidrawology Project is an Arts Liberation Movement.” Prior to awakening this liberatory arts movement (and method), Mzayiya wrote in an artist statement how his work questions justice and peace. Those two words, often used as a call and response refrain in actions of resistance, are seen and heard loud and clear in Mzayiya’s art. Through continued experimentation his work sings: No justice! No peace!

Ben Verghese is a writer, researcher and primary school teacher based between Cape Town and London. He is currently enrolled at UWC where he is a recipient of the Andrew W Mellon CHR Flagship Masters Fellowship for 2020 and 2021.


Notes

[1] Let the Music Take You is credited to David Murray, a saxophonist who Dyani played and recorded with on an album earlier in 1978 as well as the night after his solo concert in Willisau.

[2] Thembinkosi Goniwe, ʻThe Sour Pleasure of the Art Industryʼ, Mail & Guardian (2018). https://mg.co.za/article/2018-09-07-00-the-sour-pleasure-of-the-art-industry. Accessed: 22 July 2020.

[3] Emile Maurice, ʻHidden voices: art and the erasure of memory in post-apartheid South Africaʼ, UCT Archival Platform (2013). http://www.apc.uct.ac.za/apc/projects/have-your-say/hidden-voices-art-and-erasure-memory-post-apartheid-south-africa. Accessed: 22 July 2020.

[4] Premesh Lalu, ʻUnder the Rainbow Raysʼ, Chimurenga Chronic (2013). https://chimurengachronic.co.za/under-the-rainbow-rays. Accessed: 20 July 2020.

[5] Personal correspondence with Dathini Mzayiya, March 2013.

[6] Social media post by Rustum Kozain, 2013 (no longer online).

[7] Athi Mongezeleli Joja, ʻUnder the Rainbow: Dathini Mzayiya at Greatmore Studios, ʼ ArtThrob (2013). https://www.artthrob.co.za/Reviews/Athi_Mongezeleli_Joja__reviews_Under_the_Rainbow_by_Dathini_Mzayiya_at_Greatmore_Studios.aspx. Accessed: 21 July 2020.

[8] Personal correspondence with Dathini Mzayiya, March 2013.

[9] Personal correspondence with Dathini Mzayiya, March 2013.

[10] Ashraf Jamal, ʻAsking Questions,ʼ in Victor Ehikhanenor Longings/Belongings (Cape Town: Greatmore Studios, 2016), 3–4.

[11] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013), 110.

[12] Pan African Space Station, ‘The Shebeen as College of Music’ (n.d) https://panafricanspacestation.org.za/the-shebeen-as-college-of-music. Accessed: 20 January 2021.

[13] A chalk pastel portrait of Andile Yenana cut out from a newspaper continues to be on display in our home.

[14] Discogs, ‘Amandla Freedom Ensemble – Bhekisizwe (2015, CD)’ (n.d.) https://www.discogs.com/Amandla-Freedom-Ensemble-Bhekisizwe/release/8759027. Accessed: 20 January 2021.

[15] Personal correspondence with Mandla Mlangeni, July 2020.

[16] Ivan Vladislavic, Portrait with Keys, (Roggebaai: Umuzi, 2006).

[17] Personal correspondence with Dathini Mzayiya, July 2020.

[18] Afrikaans for ‘Whites Only’, a ubiquitous Apartheid sign.

[19] Emile Maurice, ʻRole of the artistʼ in Heidi Grunebaum and Emile Maurice (eds) Uncontained: Opening the Community Arts Project archive (Bellville, Cape Town: Centre for Humanities Research, UWC, 2012), 120.

[20] Robben Island Museum, Struggle Ink: the poster as a South African cultural weapon, 1982-1994: exhibition catalogue (Cape Town: Robben Island Museum, 2004), 10.

[21] Personal correspondence with Reza Khota, July 2020.

[22] The Centre for Humanities Research, ‘New Horizons Spotlight’ (2016) https://www.chrflagship.uwc.ac.za/new-horzions-spotlight. Accessed: 21 January 2021.

[23] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1963), 51.

[24] Fanon, The Wretched, 51.

[25] Thembinkosi Goniwe, ʻContemporary South African Visual Art and the Postcolonial Imagination, 1992-Presentʼ, Phd thesis (Cornell University, 2017), 12.

[26] Personal correspondence with Dathini Mzayiya, July 2020.

[27] Personal correspondence with Dathini Mzayiya, July 2020.

[28] Gwen Ansell, Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music, and Politics in South Africa (New York: Continuum Press, 2004), 151.

[29] Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful (London: Abacus, 1996), 191.

[30] John Mowitt, ‘The Ding in Itself’ (Unpublished, 2017). The Centre for Humanities Research, ‘People You May Know: A Performance at the Factory of the Arts’ (2016) https://www.chrflagship.uwc.ac.za/people-may-know-performance-factory-arts. Accessed: 21 July 2020.

[31] The Centre for Humanities Research, ‘The Reza Khota Quartet with live art by Dathini Mzayiya’ (2016) https://www.chrflagship.uwc.ac.za/reza-khota-quartet-live-art-dathini-mzayiya. Accessed: 21 July 2020.

[32] From the album Music for Xaba (Sonet, 1973).

[33] Personal correspondence with Reza Khota, July 2020.

[34] Naomi Beckworth, Romi Crawford, Tomeka Reid, Dieter Roelstraete, Hamza Walker and Fred Moten, ʻA Collective Conversationʼ in Naomi Beckwith and Dieter Roelstraete (eds) The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago & University of Chicago Press, 2015), 192.

[35] Personal correspondence with Dathini Mzayiya, July 2020.

[36] Kodwo Eshun, ʻDrawing the forms of things unknownʼ in Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar (eds) The Ghosts of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective, 1982-1998 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press & FACT, 2007), 95.

[37] Simply put, ukombela is a style of singing and song associated with Xhosa culture.

[38] Lindokuhle Nkosi, ʻyokuvala umkhokhaʼ, herri (2020). https://herri.org.za/3/lindokuhle-nkosi. Accessed: 22 July 2020.

[39] Personal correspondence with Dathini Mzayiya, March 2013.

[40] Personal correspondence with Dathini Mzayiya, July 2020.



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