14th June 2015 marks the 30th anniversary for the death of the artist Thami Mnyele and 11 other people in Gaborone, Botswana.Thamsanqa Mnyele was 36 years old and had been an integral part of the Medu Art Ensemble which had been established in Gaborone in 1979. It was called a cultural association, and allowed exiled South African artists a space in which to use their art (in various forms) to create awareness about Apartheid and the plight of people in South Africa. According to Dr Mongane Wally Serote Medu was 'an organ of civil society raising arts and culture issues from a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic position, but also complementing, from a non-partisan position, broad issues put on the national agenda by the ANC.'
The Medu Art Ensemble used an incredibly diverse selection of cultural forms to get their message across, including; theatre, graphic arts and design, film, music and photography. Within the SAHA Poster collection (AL2446) we have a selection of posters that were made by Medu and specifically by Thami Mnyele.
Thami Mnyele was a prolific artist, who specialised in but was not confined to the fine arts. His art work 'derived from a temperament that was, at core, intensely empathetic and unusually sensitive to indignities'. It is then not difficult to understand what drew him into the ANC and furthermore into becoming a cadre in Umkhonto we Sizwe. Within the Medu Arts Ensemble he would frequently head the graphic art unit, which dealt specifically with posters, newsletter illustrations, pamphlets and various other items.
In 1982, Medu Art Ensemble hosted 'The Culture and Resistance Symposium' in Gaborone. This was a way to create a space in which those artists within Medu and other South Africans could discuss their place in the specific climate that South Africa was in at that time. The SAHA 'Culture and Resistance Symposium Collection' (AL2596) includes various documents from this symposium, including papers by Richard Rive, James Matthews and Barry Gilder.
After the symposium in 1982, the South African Defence Force (SADF) became acutely aware of what was happening with Medu Art Ensemble, and in 1985 Operation Plecksy was carried out. This raid killed 12 people including Thami Mnyele and Mike Hamlyn (treasurer of Medu Arts Ensemble). After the raid Medu Arts Ensemble ceased to exist, as many of its members who were underground were deployed elsewhere, and the environment in Gaborone had completely transformed creating a more tense situation which didn't allow for the Ensemble to carry on its work.
Dr Mongane Wally Serote, 'Medu Art Ensemble and Revolution' in Kellner, C and Gonzalez, S. "Thami Mnyele and Medu Art Ensemble Retrospective, pg 193.
Wylie, D. "Thami Mnyele and the Art of Tragedy" in Kellner, C and Gonzalez, S. "Thami Mnyele and Medu Art Ensemble Retrospective, pg 15.
See the SAHA Poster Collection (AL2446)
See the SAHA Culture and Resistance Symposium Collection (AL2596)
For further reading on Medu Art Ensemble and Thami Mnyele poster images, see the publication page for Red On Black: The story of the South African Poster Movement.