Jimi Matthews was born in 1955 in Cape Town, Western Province (now Western Cape) and raised here. After school he enrolled at a university that was exclusively for coloured students but before his final exams, Matthews left the university as a statement of protest against the impossible educational methods that black students were exposed to. Thereafter he moved between several jobs including working as a dockworker and in a factory.
Matthews later became interested in photography and taught himself with the help of technical books and by viewing the work of other photographers. Matthews started to work as a freelance photographer supplying photographs to the independent press. In 1978, Matthews initiated and led a photography course for beginners.
In 1979 he was given a bursary to study filmmaking at the London Film School, where he stayed until returning to South Africa in 1982. During the 1980s, Matthews worked as a freelance photojournalist and cameraman in Cape Town, primarily for foreign television networks. He was a member of Vukalisa (isiXhosa for enlighten), an artists’ collective which worked in local communities to encourage cultural activities.
Matthews exhibited his work in various solo shows in Europe including the Barcelona exhibition commemorating the International Year of Youth which was sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1985, as well as a 1985 photographic exhibition in London which sought to illustrate black resistance in South Africa. Matthews’ work was included in the “Culture and Resistance” Festival held in Gaborone, Botswana in 1982, the Staffrider exhibitions of 1983 and 1984, and the book and exhibition by Dieter Koeve and Tim Besserer entitled Nichts Wird Uns Trennen(Nothing will separate us) produced in Bern, Switzerland in 1983.
His contribution to the 1986 publication of South Africa: The Cordoned Heart (which was a part of the exhibition produced by the Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in South Africa) was a statement about the lives of nomadic trek-skeerders (sheep shearers) of the Karoo region in South Africa.
Badsha, O. (ed). (1986)South Africa: The Cordoned Heart, Essays by Twenty South African Photographers. Cape Town: Gallery Press|
Koeve, D. and Besserer, T., (1983). Nichts Wird Uns Trennen: Sudafrikanische Fotografen und Dichter. Bern: Benteli Verlag