Goodbye Billy Mandindi (1967-2005)
by David Robert Lewis
The life of Buyisile 'Billy' Mandindi is emblematic of so many artists of the 'lost generation' of the eighties. Isolated from the rest of the world by sanctions and a blanket ban on international cultural exchanges - a terrible boycott that ironically failed to distinguish between those who were actively rebelling against the system and those who were not - Mandindi managed to break with tradition for a brief while, bringing fame as well as notoriety.
I will always remember him covered head-to-toe in sticky purple dye, the result of his participation in a landmark riot in Cape Town during 1989, and still cutting lino-board for a new work that would evoke the spirit of rebellion. Forever, the artist as social commentator, myth-maker and rapscallion. Much has already been said about this trickster quality, his down-and-out existence that lead him to the street as well as the hallowed halls of some of the finer art galleries in the country.
Without wishing to sound nostalgic, I think it is sad that critics have stripped away Mandindi's participation in various cultural organisations such as the Uluntu Centre, Cultural Workers' Congress and the Kagenna Project, while making no attempt to get to grips with the counter-cultural smoke and teargas of the time: the bullets, bombs and barricades that marked Billy's participation in the anti-apartheid struggle and the emerging multiracial bohemian society that supported him.
Perhaps his work gains something from various attempts to reposition South African art amidst the earnestness of progress? Maybe we are all better off forgetting Mandindi's resistance to apartheid via a blameless, child-like quality, that in the face of an overriding institutional brutality, still speaks fathoms about the 'other side', its lack of innocence and especially the role of art in subverting the dominant powers that be?
If we lose the context of Mandindi's major works like Fire Games 1985, African Child 1990, and the tumultuous events that created him, then we risk perverting justice with a travesty that redeems the life of his critics, and instead reclaims the institutions that ignored him for most of his life. Let's rather redress the past by celebrating his life outside of the academic system, away from the galleries and museums that will inevitably forget his name again when he is no longer considered useful, abandoning his often whimsical and serene art and throwing it back onto the street when better examples of painting and line drawing come along.
If this is too cruel a motion to contemplate, then let's not forget that Billy Mandindi's life was one of constant struggle, spent for the most part in abject poverty and psychological turmoil, circumstances that eventually lead to his death at an early age. Goodbye Billy, you will live in my thoughts forever.