In Search of An African Aesthetic: Mzwandile Buthelezi

As seen in Jazz Circles.

Mzwandile Buthelezi is probably, currently the most prominent Album Art creator in this time when South African Jazz is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. A movement not straying far from its source, but progress still, without a telling where it will arrive, but such are progressions in Jazz, supposedly unpredictable. Take a detour from the Corridors of Freedom near Helen Joseph, and a university of Johannesburg, nestled in Westdene near the legendary Sophiatown is the Afrikan Freedom Station. A cosy Gallery and performance artist space owned and curated by artist, activist and scholar, Bra Steve Mokwena. It was Bra Steve as well who encouraged and started linking Mzwandile up with Jazz Musicians in an effort to fan the flames of interdisciplinary collaboration… especially between visual artists and Jazz Cats that frequented the Station. Mzwandile has, in the last few years worked on album cover art for Jazz Artists like Thandi Ntuli, Benjamin Jephta and a layout for Jazz Collective Amandla Freedom Ensamble, led by Trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni. Visiting UK saxophonist Shabacka Hutchings created an album with South African musicians, The project, titled “Shabacka and the Ancestors: Wisdom of Elders” was blessed by a visual interpretation from Mzwandile Buthelezi .

In Euclidean Geometry, the circle is considered to be a shape with an infinite amount of sides, making it one of the most highly complex shapes known to man. The human condition and perspective saves us and helps the circle appear less complex and smooth without any edges. The jazz circles of Johannesburg can be considered just as complex, there is what we see, and then there is the truth. but Mzwandile Buthelezi, Graphic Designer and illustrator hovers above these Jazz circles and from his perspective draws his own circles, circles that turn to images, images that draw attention to a genre surviving because of both a barely-enough-kinda-love and a pretentious admiration from likers of finer things.

Every artist’s process is different, Mzwandile’s process of creation involves first drawing a circle, and from that everything else is derived, a representation of the cosmic egg from which all creation oozed. “Most, if not all pieces I create begin with a circle, as humans we draw so much of our energy from circles” he says, “The sun, our earth, the celestial bodies around … it’s that energy I prefer to tap into.” How does one express the feelings derived from listening to music with their eyes closed? Others see colours, others see lines and shapes, others see a darkness without , Mzwandile sees these images that he translates onto paper, alive in their stillness.

My first recollections with the term album art was plugging in my first ever computer, a Gupta produced Sahara contraption we bought at Joshua Dorr, I was a first-year student at the University of Johannesburg. Before then, I had never really been exposed to a lot of music outside of church music, most of the cassettes owned at home were dubbed (as was the term back then) from hit radio or from original cassettes that had found their way back to their owners… these were Whitney Houston’s “The Preacher’s Wife” and Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” an EP dedicated to a princess of wales, Diana, now dead.

Fast forward to 2007 and an increased access to internet and “free music”, the peer-to-peer shared (pirated) music would sometimes come with images of varying sizes portraying the album cover. Album Art would appear on my windows media player quite often… I started to pay attention, looking for connections between the music and the visuals, and sometimes a connection could be found… Other times… the cover art , it would seem, was just a necessary- without any careful consideration – final addition to the finished musical album… not part of the music but outside of it.

A new appreciation of music albums and their artworks as a complete body of work began to emerge and it was explored.

The first album cover Mzwandile ever designed was Vusi Mahlasela’s Guiding Star. He explains how his father was jazz lover and an avid Jazz music collector. Mzwandile growing up, was tasked with the mundane but exciting (for a child), job of changing the sides of the LP’s on the gramophone.

“I grew up with those covers, my introduction to art and design was probably those covers” he adds. That interaction with the then hard to pirate LP must have ingrained in the young Mzwandile a passion to perhaps work with this art form that very few celebrate. For Mzwandile, the choice to interact with Jazz on that level is a great escape from the corporate work he finds himself having to do.

Mzwandile Buthelezi had worked for various agencies when he felt he needed to develop a particular aesthetic, his own style and found it difficult to achieve that goal when working under someone else as a graphic designer. He soon let it all go and established Saatta Design, a graphic design and illustration studio based in Johannesburg, South Africa. The studio was started on the belief that for every problem in the world there is a simple design solution.. “Growing up as a skateboarder and graffiti artist (Hek1) , I got used to independence and at some point it became difficult working under someone… and I wanted to explore styles that were not trendy or brief-worthy” he notes.

Dumile-Feni.-Dare-you-say-freedom-Chaka.-1973.-Ink-and-pencil-on-paper
Dare you say Freedom, ink and Paper. by Dumile Feni

Exposing my limited working class Art Knowledge, I mention Dumile Feni’s work as a possible influence on his life especially on the decision to make, apart from other forms, Album Art. He agrees of course, but is also quick to praise other artists who’ve influenced his life and perspectives such as Fikile Magadlela, Zulu Bidi, Percy Konqobe and Hargreeves Mtukwana. Our history is misrepresented I think in between the conversation, part of the reason why I hadn’t known of some of these artists he mentioned. He advises caution when dealing with South African art history, and advises more research into the art so we as a people may better appreciate all our artists and not just those adorned with all sorts of misdirected terms of endearment, such as the “Goya of the townships” as Feni was christened by white art fundi’s… That statement sounded like the image of the ideal artist who has found a voice outside of the colonised spaces and wishes to re-imagine african art in these times when there is a call for a decolonised education amongst the Student class. For those who didn’t know, Dumile Feni was a world class South African Artist who exiled in North America and continued to make art there, later in his career he made most of his income from the creation of album covers for music artists in New York.

hargreeves
Mother and Child By Hargreeves Mtukwana.

We spend some time dissecting the different elements of the different artworks he has done with some of the Jazz Artists, I realise in this exchange that the ideas behind the work are highly complex and highly personal. Infusing idioms from the Zulu Culture with post-Modernism, Mzwandile’s work seems to be prophetic almost, as if existing in a different realm, a realm parallel to this one… as if heeding a call to go back to the basics, to the ground, to the acknowledgement of trees and nature as a source of life and growth and all there is to learn. But perhaps the most important of these is acknowledging that there is music in this realm and many others, including the realms before birth and after death. As most of the conversation was conducted in a mixture of isiZulu, English and Tsotsi taal, I realise now that articulating solely in English what we spoke and how we spoke, would be a disservice to our interaction.Thandi Ntuli-the offering cover-09.jpg

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