In 1985, the apartheid killer squads raided a house in Gaborone, Botswana, and murdered artist and Umkhonto weSizwe operative Thami Mnyele and several others.
But Mnyele the artist was in reality murdered long before the apartheid murderers took his life.
The work of Mnyele, pictured, is now part of the Thami Mnyele and Medu Arts Ensemble Exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. The exhibition is constituted by a multimedia, including documentary film recording interviews with a surviving member of Medu and family members.
However, the focus of the exhibition is not only on Mnyele's work, there is also a section focusing on Medu.
The ensemble was started around 1979 in Botswana by Wally Serote, among others.
Medu had explicitly fashioned itself as the cultural wing of the ANC.
The write-up on the exhibition gives scant regard to the obvious tensions created by the partisan decision to exclusively serve the ANC in exile against the cultural and political domination of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) back home. Medu saw itself as an advance on the BC-inspired cultural groups such as Mihloti and Mdali, which were associated with Steve Biko's BCM.
One can't help concluding that there is an attempt to hide Mnyele's BC influences. Mnyele was in fact brought to art by Bokwe Mafuna, one of Biko's closest friends and a stalwart of BC. Mnyele was held in a trance by the wailing horn of John Coltrane in Second Avenue in Alexandra. Mafuna noticed him and asked him to climb back from his high cloud, then asked him what he would like to do. Mnyele responded: "I want to draw". That is how the fire was lit.
Mnyele's earlier work, which is BC-inspired, opens up a possibility of dialogue about the questions of what does it mean to be free.
His later work shows the limitations of the Charterist movement's conception of freedom as evidenced in the 15 years of being in power. The one calls for deep transformation, the other for superficial alterations.
Athi Mongezeleli Joja, an artist and and member of the Cape Town-based Gugulective, recently made the poignant point that the celebration of Mnyele's later work, which is explicitly realistic and simplistic in representing resistance to apartheid, is a function of the incapacity of the white liberals to access black authentic artistic forms as represented by Mnyele's earlier works, which are more metaphysical and contemplative in essence.
This confirms white thought and prejudice in understanding the indivisibility of consciousness and liberation. This error drives the Western thought process which proceeds on the basis of separation.
Biko makes the best case against this separation when he says one can't be conscious and remain in bondage. Mnyele's earlier work, which is presented as less revolutionary, oozes infinite possibilities and invites us towards a thorough-going revolutionary experience from a black perspective.
American writer Frank Wilderson forcefully shows, mirroring the concerns of Joja, that for black suffering to make itself understood to whites it has to first "structurally adjust itself".
In other words, it has to speak the language of whiteness. In a sense, dialogue between black and white in a racist world can only proceed on the basis of an asymmetry of power practice.
To insist on equality of the exchange is to call for the end of dialogue and a subversion of the tranquil nonracial co-existence patched together by a pack of lies.
This partly explains why Mnyele's dream-like earlier work is underplayed; it speaks to black suffering in its own language and terms.
l The writer is co-editor of Biko Lives! Contesting the Legacies of Steve Biko.