Serving Msunduzi through the Visual Arts
Chickenman Mkhize on Edendale Excels - 7 February to 22 June 2008
Chickenman Mkhize was an eccentric artist and performer in the centre of Pietermaritzburg. He used found materials to create road signs, puppets and animals on wheels. Chickenman made his art to support his family in Willowfountain, Edendale. In the process of scrounging from waste materials, he was recycling old and discarded objects, giving them new meaning and life.
Fanozi (Chickenman) Mkhize (1959 -1995)
Fanozi (Chickenman) Mkhize was born in Ndaleni near Richmond, KwaZulu-Natal, on 8 November 1959. His parents were Khalelani and Fundumuthi Mkhize. Although he became a popular figure with people from Pietermaritzburg and later all over the world, very little is known about his education, and he was assumed to be uneducated.
When he was old enough, he took employment at the Pietermaritzburg depot of Clover Dairies and stayed at Willowfountain in Edendale, near Pietermaritzburg, where he lived for the rest of his life. In the late 1980's he was medically boarded from Clover due to severe epileptic fits.
He then started to work on the lawns outside the Tatham Art Gallery, in the centre of Pietermaritzburg, producing what has been described as 'a mixture of sculpture, road signs and paintings depicting the conditions of the world around him' (Video recording: SABC Arts Unlimited, 1996). Artworks contained crudely arranged words and letters which forced the viewer to engage with the artwork to find its meaning.
Chickenman's relationship with Lorna Ferguson, then curator of the Tatham Art Gallery, made his works valuable, as through her he participated in various local and international art exhibitions, which forced discussions on the differences and similarities between art and craft.
According to Ferguson, Chickenman saw himself as an artist who was responding to a 'spiritual calling'. It was established that his inspiration for his art was to fulfill a dream he had earlier in his life, when he saw 'a line of road signs and animals arranged on a pavement - and he had made them' (Video interview: Bryony Clark, SABC Arts Alive, 1996). He set out to accomplish this dream by making his signs. His artworks were derived from his fascination with lettering rather than from meaning or message. He would come up with a design and his son, Hezekiah, then aged about twelve, would either assist with the calligraphy or setting up the support for it.
As an artist, Chickenman kept his audience captivated with his eccentricities and his troupe of drawstring puppets made from found materials, wire and goat skin, dancing to mbhaqanga music from his ghetto blaster. Unlike most artists, he was part of his art. Next to this performance stood an advertising banner with his contact details:
Chickenman Willowfntein Mkize Fanozi Johan NPC Pietermaritzburg R10
He also knew how to promote himself and his art as he would dress up in various outfits collected from rubbish bins outside hairdressing and beauty salons in and around the city. Included in his garments was the Clover logo. Ferguson had described him as a person with a great sense of 'scrounging.'
Chickenman's signs led to debates about his role and involvement in art. Arguments about his ability to create artworks knowingly, and his use of non-art materials, stimulated the craft versus art debate. Art critic Kendall Geers saw his value in contemporary South African art history, while art history lecturer Frank Ledimo questioned his conscious artistic abilities. For Chickenman these were decisions taken subconsciously, through selective scrounging in rubbish bins.
Organisers of the Johannesburg Biennale of 1995, with the sub-title But is it art?, commissioned Chickenman to do a sign for their theme. This coincided with the academic debates on new trends in visual art. The other sign, Abuse of power comes as no surprise, was viewed as a major development for someone who was considered to be illiterate. Politically, the message could have been directed to local and international statesmen, as there was growing political tension and uneasiness in the world with the changing regime and passing of the new constitution in South Africa. Chickenman was aware of the socio-political conditions around him even though his themes were not political. When asked by Bryony Clark about the meaning of this sign, his reply was that he was 'interested in the letter arrangements' (Bryony Clark : SABC interview, 1997).
Chickenman's lettering and designs led to a deal with Scotch Macaskill to print a limited edition of T-shirts made accessible through the Tatham Art Gallery Shop. Chickenman's fascination with lettering and The Learner Drivers Manual shift him from innocent curiosity to statements on our lack of social values and the degeneration of morality.
On his death, in 1995, the Tatham Art Gallery contributed towards the funeral costs. A year later, in 1996, the Gallery held a Retrospective Exhibition and an auction, of which the proceeds were donated to Chickenman's family, to close the chapter on this major icon, whose works have become collectors' items.
Tatham Art Gallery History Files