Thokozani Mthiyane uses art for therapeutic and poetic reasons. His exhibition is on at the Art Eye Gallery in Johannesburg. Picture: SUPPLIED
Thokozani Mthiyane uses art for therapeutic and poetic reasons. His exhibition is on at the Art Eye Gallery in Johannesburg. Picture: SUPPLIED

Ellis House in Johannesburg is the ideal location to ponder why art is so popular. The building in Ellis Park is bursting with life. It is home to students, sports lovers, panel beaters and artist studios.

Art has breathed life into the building. It houses two galleries, Room and ArtEye Gallery.

Tyrone Selmon’s idiosyncratic concept of a gallery created ArtEye — a huge rambling space encompassing a lounge, artist studios and open spaces for artists to perform.

Most of the artists aligned to ArtEye are untrained, have been overlooked or have taken very winding roads to making art. Thokozani Mthiyane, who has a solo exhibition at the gallery, checks all of these boxes.

In a short filmed interview with him screened in a back room of the gallery, it emerges that he is a prodigious reader, shaped by a mishmash of inspiring words from the likes of TS Eliot to Kandinsky. This guided him to believing 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.

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 and successful. The titles of his 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, collages strips of textiles into the works. Safety pins are added to the compositions, giving a slightly punk feel to his Basquiat-type vibe.

Mthiyane has existed on the periphery of the art world, but his art is almost fashionable. If he distilled his vocabulary and had a good back story about the found objects and disused fabrics he works with, he could probably find a niche for himself at Blank Projects in Cape Town, which has become a home to the textile abstract genre.

He believes "art is about myth creation. There is no absolute truth, so you have to create your own one."

The mythical, mystical visceral experiences that canvases, document and substantiate, particularly abstract ones, present an escape from mass-produced clean objects that people typically aspire to owning.

Mthiyane’s art offers this in bucket loads; with creases, dark splodges, safety pins and torn fabrics fused to form a square-shaped canvas. He appears to be offering us something worn and battered. These rough, though often brightly coloured mixed media paintings and collages appear to be the product of a real gritty existence.

Rough, abstract artworks serve as a reminder that beauty, imperfection and all sorts of other things exist beyond digital universes and the seemingly inescapable work-consumption cycle — a little bit of old-fashioned "soul" as the title of Mthiyane’s show suggests.

• Soul Songs by Thokozani Mthiyane is at the Art Eye Gallery, Voorhout Street, New Doornfontein until the end of September.


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