The murdered aspirations of Thami Mnyele

There are a lot of thorns and barbed wire in Thami Mnyele’s drawings. One sketch shows a mother in her township matchbox-house: she holds her toddler, but away from herself, looking the other way. Alongside there is a march of angry and excited people with clenched fists. The child also clenches his fist. It looks at them, not at the mother.

Growing up in apartheid South Africa in the seventies and early eighties of the last century, Thami Mnyele became an angry artist. Or perhaps it’s better to say that he would have fully become one, if the same apartheid and anger had not stood in the way of him developing his talents: firstly, by forcing him to choose the resistance, then by getting him riddled with bullets, along with his drawings.

The artist residence for African artists in Amsterdam is named after him. “To give others the space he never had. It’s a homage to that dampened aspiration,” in the words of then municipal council member and initiator of the Thami Mnyele Foundation Bert Holvast of the Dutch Green Left party.

On June 14, 1985, a South African military unit raided Thami Mnyele’s home in the exile community in neighbouring Botswana. The soldiers grabbed his drawings from the walls, took with them what they could and opened fire at what they had to leave behind. Then the threw in a hand grenade. After the fire came the water from the damaged water pipes, completing the destruction. The next day friends found the body of the artist. He had been thirty-seven years old, born in 1948, the year of the introduction of apartheid. Read more