A cup of coffee literally fuels Thokozani Mthiyane's art

12 September 2017 - 12:12 By Staff reporter
Thokozani Mthiyane.
Thokozani Mthiyane.
Image: Arteye

The variety of expressions in Soul Songs: The Shape Of My Head, the new show by artist Thokozani Mthiyane, showing at Art Eye Gallery in New Doornfontein, Joburg, borrows from his previous work.

There are recognisable abstract, brightly coloured paintings with their distinctive symbols and crosses but, also, there are sculptures and figurative paintings he has included and which point to an evolution in his work.

The soft-spoken Mthiyane, 48, has led an interesting life that has taken him from the streets of Claremont in Durban to working behind the counter at Exclusive Books in Rosebank, a residency in Normandy, France, and the bustling streets of Dakar (Senegal), Accra (Ghana) and Lagos (Nigeria).

Along the way he's collected objects and traditional fabrics which he has now "appropriated and hybridised into a version of how I would like to see them being used in the world that I've experienced", in sculptures included in the show.

A lover of classical music and jazz, he sees his works as responses to his surroundings, often working from a starting point of what he terms "coffee libations", in which, after drinking one of the many cups, he pours the grinds onto canvases and begins to paint.

Mthiyane tells me as we walk through the exhibition: "When I lived in Nigeria I had to come here to get coffee, not that it wasn't there but it's just the nature of Lagos that you have to go there to get this and there to get that and until I knew where to go I would collect coffee when I was back in Joburg. In Nigeria you don't just drink, it's a ceremony, and in Senegal you wait even longer for a tiny cup of coffee - like half-an-hour or more."

You can see coffee grains when you look closely at his paintings and begin to notice how they form an integral part of the work.

Growing up, he describes himself as a "bookish" teenager who developed a love for French, believing it to be the "language of literature". He spent time translating poetry by French authors like Rimbaud into Zulu.

Mthiyane is self-taught as an artist and began painting only when he was in his early 20s but feels now that he has reached a point where he's no longer reliant on other jobs for survival. He hopes that his new body of work - Soul Songs - will spark conversations between himself and his audience about his personal and emotional journey.

With his works receiving interest from French galleries and a series of new paintings focused on the lives of African immigrants in Johannesburg, Mthiyane is not sure where his journey will take him next but hopes those who experience his work will inspire "conversations about who I am and what I'm doing and people who see things in the work that I don't even see myself".

Thokozani Mthiyane's 'Soul Songs: The Shape Of My Head' is at Art Eye Gallery and Studio, 5th Floor Ellis House, 23 Voorhout Street, New Doornfontein. E-mail