Mthiyane (39) grew up in Cleremont Township near Durban, where after leaving school he would pass time in the studios of artists Sfiso KaMkame and Thami Jali, watching them work. “I would sit for hours in Sfiso’s room while he was working just looking through books of modern art and art history,” he recalls.
In 1999, after a stint in children’s theatre with the Madcaps Educational Theatre Company and his first solo exhibition at the Flat Gallery in Durban, Mthyane moved to Johannesburg where he began to work seriously on his poetry and performance. By then fluent in textbook French, Mthiyane left for France in 2002 and remained there for six months. “Just to see what other people were doing that side”. It was at the Cave Poésie in Toulouse, Southern France, where he developed his signature act of performing French poetry translated into Zulu. He returned to France in 2001 and again in 2004 to perform the poems of Jacques Prévert in the small town of Heroville near Normandy. “I was very lonely there. It was quite bleak and cold and wet,” he says.
Considering this litany of accomplishments, why haven’t many people heard of Mthiyane? “I stay on the periphery,” he says. “I’m much more of an outsider, and I’m happy to stay that way because I’m not motivated to make money.”
The public eye glanced briefly in his direction in 2001 when he combined a solo exhibition of paintings and a series of poetry readings at the Gerard Sekoto Gallery at the Alliance Française in Johannesburg. Interest in his work is beginning to pick up again following the opening last week of Songlines, a joint exhibition with Samson Mnisi at the Res Gallery in Rosebank until the end of October. In this exhibition Mthiyane works for the first time with digital prints of his paintings, to which he spontaneously adds collage, drawing and textual elements.