Democratic Intuition (2013-2019), an 8 chapter project of oil on canvas paintings and sculptures, aims to ask questions about how one can approach ideas of the democratic in relation to the daily-lived experiences of the subjects that occupy southern Africa. In dealing with this material, Mokgosi focuses on the ways in which democracy can be thought of as both something that is inscribed within the individual from various institutions in addition to being partly intuitive or self-taught through processes of socialization and intersubjective exchange. As a result, this project questions and outlines how the idea and reciprocation of the democratic is counter-intuitive because it is based on the contradiction between recognizing one’s supposed freedom as an individual and the recognition that has to be applied to one’s partner to interaction.

 

 

Chapters

Objects of Desire

Chimurenga

Acts of Resistance

Bread, Butter, and Power

Lex

Lerato (Love)

Comrades I and II

Exordium

Objects of Desire, and Chimurenga, 2019

Installation View, Honor Fraser Gallery, Los Angeles

 

Objects of Desire and Chimurenga are the final chapters in the series Democratic Intuition started by the artist in 2013. Often large in scale, Mokgosi’s paintings fit within the genre of history paintings—the highest form of academic painting—but for this series, the artist has chosen to create smaller works that engage with the lowest tradition: the still life. Revisiting imagery from past works in the series, this play between genres asks viewers to reconsider how we use institutionalized and bias categories in order to construct the conditions under which we create knowledge and therefore work towards conceptualizing and understanding the world.

 

Mokgosi’s research for this body of work included looking into the Museum of Modern Art’s archives, specifically the exhibitions “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (1984) and Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life (1997). Primitivism has become infamous for the public backlash, the main criticism involving the way in which curator William Rubin discussed the African works on view only as they were perceived and collected by the early Modernists, not as objects with their own histories. Objects of Desire made a strong argument for viewing the inanimate objects depicted by the Modernists as evidence of a growing lexicon of affluence among the cosmopolitan artists. MoMA has a long and storied history of presenting seminal exhibitions and important scholarly publications. For all of this important output, the institution and its legacy must be questioned in order to remain relevant. Mokgosi approaches these two exhibitions through an examination of the contemporary African object in his own paintings with the aim of challenging the legacy of African art as a tool of the Modernists in developing their own methodologies.

Acts of Resistance, 2018

Installation View, Baltimore Museum of Art

 

Acts of Resistance specifically responds to and is in dialogue with a handful of paintings in the BMA’s permanent collection. In this installation, Mokgosi examines both formal and informal forms of resistance, placing equal emphasis on both. In this context, Mokgosi has defined resistance as any instance were a subject rejects and refuses to give-in to the oppression of her spirit. Were formal resistance takes aim at the state and institutional forces, informal resistance encompasses everyday acts, both unconscious and conscious. Mokgosi’s paintings notably confront the politics and histories of representation. From a Euro-centric vantage point, black figures are almost always interpreted as representing difference. In other words, to most Baltimore Museum of Art museum-goers (as well as to most BMA staff charged with deciding which art goes on gallery walls and how it is explained), a painted black figure is inevitably seen as an exception to the “normal” array of white-skinned figures who dominate not only artworks, but positions of historical, political, and economic privilege. A Euro-centric viewer’s reflection on a black subject in painting might encompass more than the idea of difference, but it can rarely escape entirely from this initial designation of “other.”

 

In Acts of Resistance, Mokgosi compels viewers to give his subjects more complex consideration. Just as the white figures depicted by European artists in the BMA galleries are first and foremost understood as representations of religious devotion, motherhood, power, wealth, love, and more rather than as “white,” the artist presents figures whose beautiful and precisely-rendered attributes, emotional bearing, inter-relationships, and geographically-specific contexts seek to transcend generalizing categories and marginalizing reactions. Mokgosi has responded to BMA collection works like Sandro Botticelli’s Madonna Adoring the Child with Five Angels, c. 1485-1490, and Portrait of a Young Lady, c. 1560, attributed to Caterina van Hemessen in developing some of the compositions he presents here. [You can view these and other pieces addressed by the artist in this and nearby galleries.] This imagery is accompanied by text paintings that feature Mokgosi’s own theoretical writings on the subject of representation.

 

The artist has produced three posters for this exhibition. These works are on view on the central wall in this gallery, and visitors may stop by the gift shop to pick up a free poster.

 

 

Bread, Butter, and Power, 2018

Installation View, Fowler Museum, Los Angeles

 

Bread, Butter, and Power examines the ideals and reciprocations of democracy within the experiences of life in southern African nation-states. The 22 paintings in this chapter take up the specific issue of gendered divisions of labor, depicting the multitude of ways these divisions are manifest in daily life. Raised by his mother and his grandmother in Botswana, Mokgosi is no stranger to the intergenerational experiences of women in the region’s work force. Some paintings show children and market stands, alluding to the work women do in informal markets to provide for their families. In other interior scenes, it is the absence of women that speaks to the hurdles they are yet to overcome. And, two paintings covered in Setswana text, the lingua franca of Botswana, retell allegorical stories that have been passed down orally for generations. This focus on gender roles intersects with issues of class, ethnicity, and education, woven throughout the series, with the aim of examining the history, meaning and practice of feminism in the southern African context.

 

As a history painter, Mokgosi’s project-based practice is heavily informed by postcolonial and psychoanalytic theory, history painting, and cinema studies. Painting large-scale canvases in a style reminiscent of European history painting and panoramas allows him to subvert colonial era narratives and use the language of a grand European tradition to tell the broad story of postcolonial southern Africa. The content of his paintings draws on the artist’s extensive research and actual photographs of southern African life, he then storyboards the entire chapter, a process that takes up to twelve months. His canvases are hung in a way that mimics the filmstrip, an important frame of reference that is central to the artist’s approach to installation. Their relationships and juxtapositions help communicate and complicate their meanings.

 

 

Lex and Love, 2017

Installation view, Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown

 

Comprised of three multi-panel installations, Lex derives its title from the legal concept of lex loci actus, or the law of the place where an alleged act occurred. The paintings reflect on how the rules of a community, specifically around labor and gender, govern the actions of individuals and the degree to which they have agency to negotiate their circumstances.

 

 

Lerato, 2016

Installation view, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

 

Lerato, produced over a two-year period, was developed around ideas of allegory and lerato (love) and used William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s paintings as a compositional case study. The impetus was to experiment with visual and narrative strategies that did not depend on sequential expectations. For Mokgosi, a viewer cannot help but be cognizant of the method of reading and interpretation at the moment he or she begins to engage with any allegorical narrative (whether visual or textual). Defined as “a narrative whose outward appearance is contrived to suggest a hidden meaning” – allegories always involve a re-writing or re-imagining of preexisting texts. Added to this inquiry, and perhaps more importantly, is the unacknowledged fact that William-Adolphe Bouguereau produced paintings, such as The Motherland (1883), during the Scramble for Africa at the turn of the 20th century. Mokgosi uses this coincidence to highlight how the grand narratives of history can be unsettled through the concept of historicity:

 

Broadly speaking, historicity strategically argues that history is not something that happens, but as something that unfolds in different directions yet folds the subject into these multiple directions. History, then, is not an event or collections of events, but rather a number of “unfoldings” that bear the mark of things before. So I tend to think of history as something that is always already present. And language plays a key part too, which is why I did not want to translate the word lerato. My reservation about translation has to do with the fact that translation—as a process that tries to close the gap between two languages—is based on Western conventions (here anthropological, there ethnographic) of reality, representation and knowledge. Beyond these old politics within history, the words love and lerato differ in that the Setswana word is commonly used as a proper noun for women. The same cannot be said for the word love, which although poetic, is limited to every other world except for the one in which it can be used daily as a proper noun to summon a mother’s child.  Lerato is compelling to me because it is not an abstract and poetic concept that is supposedly opaque and fleeting, but rather it is as concrete as any human subject.

 – Meleko Mokgosi

 

 

Comrades II, 2016

Installation view, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

 

Comrades is an examination of the historical, aesthetic and conceptual links between southern African liberation movements and communism. With close attention to the ways in which language was used to articulate the fight for freedom and outlining the kind of political goals and democratic state that was sought for, this chapter asks how the idea of democracy, articulated during the struggle, has and continues to shape the current state of citizens’ experience and reciprocation of democracy. Following the French revolution, the term comrade has always had political resonance and was developed as a form of address between socialists and workers. Comrade then, was meant to always refer to egalitarianism, thus became a demonstrative form of address that was supposed to cut across gender, racial, ethnic, and class lines. In southern African liberation movements and politics, the term comrade was specifically used to refer to members of particular parties. In Zimbabwe and South Africa, the term has and is still used to refer to members of or those affiliated with ZANU (PF) and the ANC respectively. The text panels that accompany the figurative paintings were made by painting with bleach on portrait linen. The texts themselves are referred to as dinaane in Setswana, and form part of an oral tradition of storytelling in Botswana. There are no translations of the texts in the exhibition; rather Mokgosi relays the stories in English to gallery staff or museum docents, who in-turn retell these stories upon request from viewers.

 

 

Comrades I, 2016

Installation view, Stevenson Art Gallery, Cape Town

 

Comrades is an examination of the historical, aesthetic and conceptual links between southern African liberation movements and communism. With close attention to the ways in which language was used to articulate the fight for freedom and outlining the kind of political goals and democratic state that was sought for, this chapter asks how the idea of democracy, articulated during the struggle, has and continues to shape the current state of citizens’ experience and reciprocation of democracy. Following the French revolution, the term comrade has always had political resonance and was developed as a form of address between socialists and workers. Comrade then, was meant to always refer to egalitarianism, thus became a demonstrative form of address that was supposed to cut across gender, racial, ethnic, and class lines. In southern African liberation movements and politics, the term comrade was specifically used to refer to members of particular parties. In Zimbabwe and South Africa, the term has and is still used to refer to members of or those affiliated with ZANU (PF) and the ANC respectively. The text panels that accompany the figurative paintings were made by painting with bleach on portrait linen. The texts themselves are referred to as dinaane in Setswana, and form part of an oral tradition of storytelling in Botswana. There are no translations of the texts in the exhibition; rather Mokgosi relays the stories in English to gallery staff or museum docents, who in-turn retell these stories upon request from viewers.

 

 

Exordium, 2015

Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

 

Exordium deals with ideas of education and labor in relation to the access and practice of democracy. In this work, the denial of opportunities for intellectual labor takes a number of forms. A group of young girls in blue uniforms holding gardening implements references the privileging in Botswana’s public schools of manual labor and “practical” skills, which often replace academic subjects. Another panel showing white animals and a Zulu warrior alludes to the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906, in which a number of Zulus killed their own white animals (in symbolic resistance to their white oppressors) to protest a tax intended to move them into cities, where they would help meet South African mining companies’ need for menial labor. A man in a business suit is juxtaposed with women in housekeeping uniforms, underscoring the disparity in educational and professional prospects available to women and men.

 

 

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