In 2015 Malcolm Jiyane exhibited his paintings at the Afrikan Freedom Station under the title I Paint What I Like. In one painting, a black body lies horizontal, a tree growing out of its mouth, tears running down its cheek. Somewhere near the ribcage, a white man loads chained slaves on to a boat. Around the waist, a shack, with children playing outside in the dirt as a woman watches on. No men in sight. In place of a leg, an underground mine, plenty of men there. In place of the other leg, a young boy train surfs on the Metrorail.
Jiyane’s first love was not music, but visual art. “My grandmother worked for a furniture shop and she used to come back with a lot of paper,” he explains. “From about six, I told her that I wanted to do art.” At first he made do with paper and pencils.
“My first real art equipment was stolen from CNA. If I had R200, I would use R150 to buy paint and then steal a whole lot more supplies. Stealing is wrong, but I needed paints. They used to know me at the CNA – it looked like I was the only black person who came there to buy paint. Eventually I found out about art shops, because I wanted bigger canvases,” explained Jiyane.
His time at the Music Academy of Gauteng also allowed him to nurture his aptitude for visual art in his teenage years, and he was given his own room in which to paint and practice his instruments.
Jiyane soon realised he could use the academy as a platform to promote his art. “At the music school, we used to host a lot of foreign tourists, so I would find myself being asked to play for them. I always knew that if people were coming to the school, I had an opportunity to show my art.” The teenage Jiyane was conducting a brisk trade selling his paintings to tourists. “I was dealing my own art, in dollars,” he said with a smile.
“Malcolm’s paintings hang in Sweden,” said Johnny Mekoa in early 2017. “I handled his deals. The tourists would send the money to the school and I would pass it on to him.” Mekoa pointed to a painting hanging in his office of a jazz band in full flight. “That was my 60th birthday.”
As I looked around Mekoa’s office, I noticed Jiyani’s artworks everywhere. Some were stashed behind a cupboard. “I have to get money to frame them,” he said. Since Jiyane’s exhibition at the Freedom Station, he has taken part in three more exhibitions in Johannesburg and Pretoria, and contributed artwork to Tumi Mogorosi and Gabisile Motuba’s 2016 album Sanctum/Sanctorium.
Biko meets Basquiat
The Freedom Station’s Steve Kwena Mokwena described Jiyane’s exhibition as “incredible”, and although he might not have any formal art education, he has a “pure intellect”. If you were to try to sum up the exhibition, it would probably be something along the lines of Steve Biko meets Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Jiyane explained that the digital prints that made up the exhibition were done on Windows software. “I was told you can’t do this,” he said, chuckling. “I said, ‘Let’s try’.”
As for the subject matter: “Schools don’t have toilets, but people are building expensive houses. A lot of this bullshit doesn’t make sense,” Jiyane said. “There are a lot of sad things happening in this world. Do people know what hell is? I see hell every day. I just saw hell on the taxi on the way here.”
When I asked Jiyane if Basquiat was a big influence on his art, he said a lot of people had mentioned the name to him. “I found out about that guy afterwards. When I started painting, I hadn’t had the privilege to study art. I now have the privilege to buy books … and then I found out about this guy Basquiat. I started reading about the guy and … his work shook me.”
More recently, Jiyane launched a clothing brand, ZIO, where he customises takkies by painting on them. “I am venturing into fashion now,” he said. “People wearing my work is an exhibition on its own.”
Fast forward to July 2018. The Freedom Station was closed because it was moving to a bigger space in Sophiatown. Jiyane has moved from Westdene to Soweto and become a father to a girl named Sierra Leone.
As we sat in my garden, sipping coffee in the winter chill, Jiyane told me he had always wanted to be a father. “It’s a beautiful honour to be part of creation,” he said. “It has changed the whole painting. I am learning to shape my life around being a father. A lot of things had to end, a lot of things had to change. I am content. I practice while babysitting my daughter. She sings and draws while I play.”
He said the move to Soweto had been inspiring. “I am from the East [Rand], Daveyton, and I moved west to Sophiatown, and now I am in Soweto.” He called Soweto a “beautiful canvas in so many ways”, and said, “I am still going to tap into that. I am trying to absorb the differences.”
But the past year and a half had also been tough for the artist. “I lost two very important people in my life, which is why a lot of things had to wait,” he said. “When that happened, a part of me was distorted. I had to repair that part of me.”
The first was his friend Senzo Nxumalo, a fellow Music Academy of Gauteng graduate and bassist in both Future History and the Malcolm Jiyane Tree-O. “We started playing together at Bra Johnny’s music school,” recalled Jiyane. “He was a brother. I owe him so much.”
The second loss was Mekoa, Jiyane’s teacher and mentor. “Bra Johnny, may his soul rest in peace,” he said. “I just want to play and create. He exposed me to that.”
The debut anthology
It’s sometimes difficult to keep track of everything that is going on in Jiyane’s head. One minute he’ll be talking about a new band he is getting together, the next about a solo trombone record that he is recording. “I have a lot of projects in my mind that are already concluded,” he said. “I have been thinking about how to release all this material.”
Jiyane said his latest idea for his debut album is an art book containing five separate music albums. The way he described it to me, three of the five albums are already locked down. There will be a solo piano album, which is already recorded; a Malcolm Jiyane Tree-O record, also already recorded; and a solo trombone album, which he was busy recording.
For one of the remaining two albums, he would like to record a project called Malcolm Jiyane and Big Bear, a big band to honour Mekoa. Another contender is a new band he is playing with in Soweto called Umuti, featuring percussionist Gontse Makhene, The Brother Moves On bassist Ayanda Zalekile, Vincent Ngubane on piano, and Lungile Kunene on drums.
As we sat in my garden, I recalled a conversation Jiyane and I had in 2016 outside the Freedom Station as a torrential Johannesburg thunderstorm pounded down. “Jazz taught me to love,” Jiyane told me. “I find jazz in everything. I recognise both the beauty and destruction in life. As much as I know it can be beautiful and ugly, my message is, just love what you can love and take care of that. The other things are inevitable.”
Jiyane gestured at a large tree across the road. “But jazz is just one leaf on a tree. I believe in the whole tree. I love music. I am not concerned about style or genre. I have recorded music with a lot of people, but I am just waiting for the right way to release it.”
When I asked him what his fans could expect when he finally releases his debut album, he looked at me with a smile. “It will be beautiful music, I can promise you that,” he replied.