As seen in Jazz Circles

In Euclidean Geometry, the circle is considered to be a shape with an infinite amount of sides, making it one of the most highly complex shapes known to man. Our perspective saves us and helps the circle appear less complex and smooth without any edges. The jazz circles of Johannesburg can be considered just as complex, but Mzwandile Buthelezi, Graphic Designer and illustrator hovers above these Jazz circles and from his perspective draws his own circles.
My first encounters with the term album art was when I got my first Gupta produced Sahara Computer as a first year in University, before then I had never been exposed to a lot music outside of Church Music, most of the cassettes owned at home were dubbed (as was the term back then) from hit radio or from an original cassette that had found its way back to its owner. The peer-to-peer shared (pirated) music would sometimes come with images of varying sizes portraying the album cover. Album Art would appear on my windows media player quite often… I started to pay attention, looking for connections between the music and the visuals, and sometimes a connection could be found. Other times the cover art was just a necessary- without any careful consideration – final addition to the finished album.
Mzwandile Buthelezi is probably the most prominent Album Art creator in this time when South African Jazz is having a renaissance movement. Take a detour from the Corridors of Freedom near Helen Joseph, nestled in Westdene near the legendary Sophiatown is the Afrikan Freedom Station. A cosy Gallery and performance artist space owned and curated by artist, activist and scholar, Bra Steve Moekena. It was Bra Steve as well who encouraged and started linking up Mzwandile with Jazz Musicians in an effort to be more involved in interdisciplinary collaboration with Jazz Cats that frequented the Station. Mzwandile has, in the last few years worked on album cover art for Jazz Artists like Thandi Ntuli, Benjamin Jephta and a layout for Jazz Collective Amandla Freedom Ensamble, led by Trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni. Visiting UK saxophonist Shabacka Hutchings created an album with South African musicians., The project is called “Shabacka and the Ancestors: Wisdom of Elders” and it too was blessed by a visual interpretation from Mzwandile Buthelezi .
The first album cover he ever designed was Vusi Mahlasela’s Guiding Star. He explains how his father was jazz lover and an avid Jazz music collector. Mzwandile growing up, was tasked with the mundane but exciting (for a child), job of changing the sides of the LP’s on the gramophone.

“I grew up with those covers, my introduction to art and design was probably those covers” he adds. That interaction with the then hard to pirate LP must have ingrained in the young Mzwandile a passion to perhaps work with this art form that very few celebrate. For Mzwandile, the choice to interact with Jazz on that level is a great escape from the corporate work he finds himself having to do.
Mzwandile Buthelezi had worked for various agencies when he felt he needed to develop his own style and found it difficult to achieve that goal when working under someone else as a graphic designer. He soon let it all go and established Saatta Design, a graphic design and illustration studio based in Johannesburg, South Africa. The studio was started on the belief that for every problem in the world there is a simple design solution.. “Growing up as a skateboarder and graffiti artist, I got used to independence and at some point it became difficult working under someone… and I wanted to explore styles that were not trendy” he notes.

I mention Dumile Feni’s work as a possible influence on his life especially on the decision to make, apart from other forms, Album Art. He agrees of course, but is also quick to Praise other artists who’ve influenced his life and perspectives such as Fikile Magadlela, Zulu Bidi, Percy Konqobe and Hargreeves Mtukwana. Our history is misrepresented, part of the reason why I hadn’t known of some of these artists he mentions. He advises caution when dealing with South African art history, and advises more research into the art so we as a people may better appreciate all our artists and not just those adorned with all sorts of misdirected terms of endearment, such as the “Goya of the townships” as Feni was christened by white art fundi’s… That statement sounded like the imagined artist who has found a voice outside of the colonised spaces and wishes to re-imagine african art in these times when there is a call for a decolonised education. For those who didn’t know, Dumile Feni was a South African Artist who exiled in North America and continued to make art there, he made most of his income from the creation of album covers for artists in New York.
Every artist’s process is different, Mzwandile’s process of creation involves first drawing a circle, and from that everything else is derived. “Most, if not all pieces I create begin with a circle, as humans we draw so much of our energy from circles” he says, “The sun, our earth, the celestial bodies around us… it’s that energy I prefer to tap into.” How does one express the feelings derived from listening to music with their eyes closed? Others see colours, others see lines and shapes, others nothing, Mzwandile sees these images that he translates onto paper.

We spend some time dissecting the different elements of the different artworks he has done with some of the Jazz Artists, I realise in this exchange that the ideas behind the work are highly complex and highly personal. Infusing idioms from the Zulu Culture with post-Modernism, Mzwandile’s work seems to be prophetic almost, as if existing in a different realm, a realm parallel to this one… as if heeding a call to go back to the basics, to the ground, to the acknowledgement of trees as a source of life and growth. But perhaps the most important of these is acknowledging that there is music in this realm and many others, including the realms before birth and after death. I realise that articulating in English what we spoke and how we spoke would be a disservice to the experience. This is how this ends.