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Art and Revolution

The Life and Death of Thami Mnyele, South African Artist
Diana Wylie

BUY Paper · 264 pp. · 8 × 7 · ISBN 9780813927640 · $27.50 · Jun 2008

Thami Mnyele's life spanned the era of apartheid. He was born the same year the National Party won office and came of age in a time (the 1960s) and a place (Johannesburg) that offered a sensitive young black artist little encouragement. In 1985, in the waning days of apartheid, he was killed by South African Special Forces operatives in Gaborone, Botswana, where he had joined the banned African National Congress. Although reticent by nature, he played a vanguard role in efforts to throw open the doors of South African culture.

Thami Mnyele's story sheds light on this tumultuous era from an unusual perspective: that of an artist and not a "young lion." Not only does Mnyele's story help us understand the birth of a modern African aesthetic; it also addresses the genesis of revolutionary commitment. How did a man come to face the prospect of martyrdom and learn to accept it? How did this choice affect what he was able to express as an artist?

Diana Wylie's beautifully written and illustrated literary biography reveals the struggles inside and around a gentle South African artist as he remade himself into a revolutionary soldier, and brings fresh insights to our understanding of South Africa's recent history.


"Art and Revolution" is, in plain terms, a biography of a noted South African artist whose work interrogated the individual and collective experience of apartheid during the 1970s and early 1980s. But it is also a cultural history, an intellectual history, and, unavoidably, a political history of the period. A particular spirit spirit inhabits this book, consisting of personal memory and obligation to a friend lost in the prime of his life...this book marks yet another intellectual departure for Wylie, demonstrating a versatility to be much admired.

Christopher Lee, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill · H-SAfrica

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