A man walks past Velaphi Mzimba’s mixed media artwork, an acrylic on wooden door titled Nelson Mandela – Looking Ahead at the 2014 We Love Mandela exhibition in Cape Town. Photo: Shelley Christians/The Times/Gallo Images
Through his first solo exhibition in 1981 at the Carlton Hotel, a gallery run by the SA Association of Arts, 22-year-old Velaphi Mzimba had found a voice to contribute to the struggle for a humane and equitable South Africa.
At the height of the apartheid struggle, when African people were essentially stripped of their humanity and identity, Mzimba used his brush and canvas to restore their dignity and stature.
There was a familiarity with his subjects which was inspired by his curiosity about the various African ethnic groups across the continent.
At the peak of her career in the 80s and 90s, when Africans weren’t allowed out of their homes but were ‘good enough’ to be help like her mother Violet, who was a domestic worker and her father Peter who was a driver, Mzimba placed them in these “sanctified” spaces – the homes, conference rooms and hotels of the “oppressor” who was in love with them.
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Most of these collectors saw the art superficially, through the familiar eyes of a portrait of Mzimba, who looked at someone in such a particular way that afterwards one felt followed. What collectors have sometimes missed is that these works seemed to emphasize that everything that happened behind the walls was under warmongering surveillance.
For the marginalized majority, there was a familiarity as if one had met the person before. They saw themselves in his works. Mzimba dared to challenge the oppressor and showed that Africans were human too. He gave them back their humanity and gave them a face. It celebrated their identity, their deep melanin and their way of life – dark, textured and colorful.
In between, he would describe how they escaped the misery of oppression through music or did their job in the midst of repression. This especially in his famous work depicting zama zama (or illegal gold miners) miners and township life.
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He goes looking for objects that represent the life of Africans – the abandoned metal basin, the shovel, the doors, the corrugated iron roofs, the used clothes – and brings them to life by juxtaposing them or by superimposing his work.
It was a tangible and constant reminder of the African struggle.
He would use his brush to make them larger than life. In his hands, subjects as innocuous as fruits or vegetables – an apple, an orange, a cabbage or a beetroot – collectively told stories.
A humble, calm and approachable artist, this is how he took up the anti-apartheid struggle – through his work, which instills optimism, humanity and dignity. It is his legacy.
Born in Dube, Soweto on September 19, 1959, Mzimba was the only son and fourth child of the late Violet (née Mabuza) and Peter Mzimba.
He discovers his love of drawing from an early age and is encouraged by his father. He dropped out of school due to the 1976 uprising.
At 16, he joined the Mofolo Arts Center in Soweto where he learned drawing, oil painting and pastel with Dan Rakgoathe.
Years later, he won a scholarship to study at the Art Foundation under the late Bill Ainslie. An award-winning and revered artist in various media, he worked as a professional artist based in Johannesburg until his sudden death.
At the time of his death, he was working on a flagship collection celebrating great African women with his longtime gallery owner Everard Read. Mzimba’s work adorns many public, corporate and private collections around the world.
He died on June 24 in the arms of his wife Boitumelo from complications from Covid-19 while awaiting treatment in hospital.
Painting of the woman waiting for Mzimba. Photo: Everard Read
Her eldest son, Bonginkosi “Bobo”, born on January 30, 1989, died peacefully in his sleep three days later, also due to complications from Covid-19.
Mzimba and Bonginkosi are survived by his wife, Boitumelo, children – Tebogo “Tebs”, Lesedi, Khanyi, Siphesihle “Malobisa”, Seti and Fili, his siblings, Betty, Julia and Sbongile and the Mzimba family.
Ikalafeng is an architect, explorer and writer of pan-African reputation @thebeikalafeng