In her solo exhibition at the Thami Mnyele Foundation in Amsterdam last year, South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape shoved a gray bicycle into a cracked doorway; hanging from the back of the bicycle frame was a bouquet of roses and baby’s breath, as well as a broken red umbrella. A sign reading “it’s a celebration bitches” was duct-taped to the front of the bicycle, a reference to a skit on the Dave Chappelle Show. Bopape knows how to tell a joke. But are we ready to get it?
With five solo shows and over thirty group exhibitions to her credit, the twenty-seven-year-old artist is primed for the upcoming New Museum triennial, The Generational: Younger Than Jesus. The exhibition, which opens April 8, will feature fifty artists from twenty-five countries, all under the age of thirty-three. Massimiliano Gioni, the Director of Special Exhibitions at the New Museum, told me in an e-mail exchange, “What struck us was the way in which Dineo managed to make work that was very personal, intimate even, but did so with very common materials.” Bopape will have a room to herself; when asked what she will do with the space, she said, “There’ll be videos, photographs, Astroturf, and maybe a disco ball.” The working title for her installation is “Ukuthwebula.” “It’s a Zulu word for taking a photograph of somebody,” she explains, “but that word is also the same as making somebody into a zombie…the images become alive, and you become dead.”
Born in Polokwane, South Africa, Bopape vacillated between becoming a magician or a fashion designer before deciding to combine the two and become an artist. After graduating from the Durban Institute of Technology, she traveled to Amsterdam for an artist’s residency at the Thami Mnyele Foundation, where she explored multiple mediums like video, photography, painting, and performance art. Her work confronts the legacy of apartheid in South Africa while examining her own self-image in the process. In an untitled video shown at the group show Post Whites Only in Rotterdam, Bopape distorted her lips so they would appear larger—or, in her words, “hyperbolized them.” “During apartheid-era South Africa, people emphasized their ‘white qualities’ to get political privilege,” she says. “I was thinking about that, the features that represent blackness. It’s a political act, to celebrate those aspects of self.” When asked if she considers herself a “post-colonial artist,” Bopape shrugs, then says, “I think everybody is a post-colonial artist; we’re all living in post-colonial societies.”
Bopape is thus able to move beyond stereotypes and a fixed self-image. She says, “My focus is to separate what has created the self [and] what is the representation of personality and group identity.” If she draws black penises ejaculating, these are followed by an image of a man with a comically large beard, or a flower exploding, or an errant jellyfish. At these times, her work is equal parts fatuous and thought-provoking. Bopape reads Deleuze and Guattari, but only for a few pages until she gets the idea. In this way, she may very well be the art star for M.I.A.’s audience. Both artists exist in a world with rapidly shifting boundaries, where “home” exists more as an idea than an actuality.
With only weeks to go before the New Museum show, Bopape still doesn’t know exactly what she’s going to do with the space. She doesn’t seem worried, though. “Somehow it all starts making sense while I’m sorting, while gathering stuff; it’s like words scattered, you know?” Her work revolves around the process of creation, rather than a belief in research or a particular canon. Simply put, she learns what the piece will be by making it. Bopape says that she is interested in “celebration, orgasm, and ecstasy,” but the primary motivation for her work is, in a word, “discomfort.” This idea is echoed in Bopape’s previous installations such as “Growing Everyday” (2005). In this multimedia piece, Bopape hangs tampon wrappers, soiled tissues, used underwear, old shoes, and a host of other abject objects on a large canvas to create an unwanted lost and found box. Streaks of crimson, gold, and titanium white are painted in large strokes over the readymade items; on closer inspection, this seemingly haphazard paint job draws attention to the contents beneath, as each lumped, sagging article clings to the canvas for dear life.
With its themes of “Possible worlds and fantasies of identity,” “How can art cope with the explosion of images in the digital sphere,” and “A return to abstraction,” The Generational: Younger Than Jesus seems a good fit for Bopape’s work. Her installation “Ukuthwebula” will feature a trove of seemingly innocuous objects, all containing hidden meanings behind their comfortable façades, with references to South Africa, colonialism, magic, sex, and the absurd. A discomfiting celebration of objects and images that will, no doubt, cause viewers to question the associations they make and how they make them. As a young South African artist living in the early 21st century, Bopape wants to “see what other people see and what I can’t see.” The mashup of objects and images she creates is thus indicative of what is happening with the globalization of art today, as artists and their work become increasingly stateless.
KATHLEEN MASSARA is a freelance writer. She is currently an intern at Harper's.