Art In Conversation
MELEKO MOKGOSI with Allie Biswas
Meleko Mokgosi grew up in Botswana and has lived in the United States for over a decade. His large-scale, project-based paintings depict narratives from his hometown and the wider region of southern Africa, which he constructs using found images, newspaper clippings, and photographs taken on his travels. Mokgosi is currently showing two bodies of work at Jack Shainman Gallery, Democratic Intuition: Lerato and Democratic Intuition: Comrades II (September 8 – October 22, 2016), which continue his examination of issues relating to the construction and representation of history.
Allie Biswas (Rail): Art school played a prominent role in your life. How did your experiences at various institutions help your work to get to where it is now?
Meleko Mokgosi: I was accepted by a few art schools in London but then found out that there wasn’t any financial aid available. So I looked to the U.S. and, by luck, met Phil Smith, a former head of admissions at Williams College, during a trip he took to Botswana. Likewise, I ended up at the Whitney Independent Study Program (ISP) after being rejected by all the MFA programs I had applied to after college. By great fortune, that is where I met Mary Kelly, and I followed her to UCLA. All of these sites were transformative: Williams College expanded my access conceptual rigor and gave me a sound foundation in art history and English literature. The ISP narrowed my interests and provided more depth and breadth in my approach to politics and theory. It also gave me the opportunity to be in New York, and, consequently, have access to museums. I feel that everything came together during the three years I worked with Mary at UCLA: this is where I really developed the central ideas around my project and process. Mary guided me to find what is normally understood as a project-based practice, which is necessarily driven by a process of interrogation.
Rail: What does having a project-based practice mean to you?
Mokgosi: From my training, the project can be simply described as the entire framework and field of inquiry of any given discipline. And in terms of the discursive site for my work, I would outline this as the various southern African nationalist movements in both their emergent and subsequent forms. Because the southern African nationalist movement functions as the discursive site, my work will always be informed by postcolonial studies and Marxism, while the rules of the studio are generated by history painting, cinema studies, and psychoanalysis.
Rail: What made you want to explore these issues? How did they become your subject matter?
Mokgosi: I cannot say with certainty what sparked my project, but I think my investment as someone from that region plays a major role. No doubt, I am heavily committed to history, and am trying to figure out how it is constructed and its effects on particular publics. These interests lead me to the idea of the localized narrative as a way of questioning how outside forces historicized our region, as well as how Eurocentricism reproduces itself.
Rail: How does the localized narrative function within your paintings?
Mokgosi: To quote a previous text: the localized narrative brings to the forefront how a narrative structure is always under negotiation and construction, putting emphasis not on the narrative itself but on the witnessing behind narration. The localized narrative allows for a constant and careful analysis of one’s positionality vis-à-vis the narrative structures, within which one is implicated directly and indirectly, as well as how one takes stock of and utilizes established and untracked histories. Above all, my efforts are invested in tracing these untracked histories that almost always counter and reside within already understood and taken-for-granted historical narratives about specific events and geopolitical locations.
Rail: You have referred to the genre of history painting for several years. How would you say this framework allows you to explore “untracked histories”?
Mokgosi: It is a useful tool and genre for investigating narrative tropes and ideas of representation; even more so when it comes to representations of particular people and histories that were established outside the control of these publics. So the most important thing, I would say, is that I am attracted to the limitations of this genre, because it is precisely in these limitations that I find productive material for my project. As the championed genre, history painting in Europe went beyond being about a particular style. It was, to paraphrase a colleague, a summation of Western moral and aesthetic principles, and the medium through which early modern society saw its ideals in images. In addition to this, it was a genre that was strategically used in relation to the European imperialist mission, so in many ways it was complicit with European imperialism.
Rail: The abstract brush mark is often seen within your work, sitting within or around the main composition.
Mokgosi: Yes, I tend to use history painting together with the abstract minimalist gestural mark. The abstract and minimal brush mark has a history of connoting a particular performativity of painterly-ness, and revealing something visceral about the construction of that mark. For all these reasons, and more, it has become a source of entertainment because it looks and acts like “painting” and “art.” I use abstraction as a kind of fake painterly-ness, and as a way of mapping things out with more economy.
Rail: Your first series of paintings, “Pax Afrikaner” (2008 – 11) was a response to xenophobic attacks towards black foreigners in southern Africa. The project seemed to connect history to the role of national identity, particularly in our “borderless” age.
Mokgosi: Indeed, the project was centered on trying to understand the role that the nation-state played in group identification, and psychoanalytic theory informed how I wanted to look at the material. And, as you rightly point out, my specific interest was fueled not only by xenophobia but also by the continual bogus claims about the promise of globalization and transnationalism, and so on. The questions I was addressing focused on how one should make meaning of what is normally called “nationalism” in one’s specific region; how we can account for the perseverance and fixity of national identification in the age of globalization; and the so-called multiplicity of identity formation. Having noticed the dangerous deterioration of relations between foreign nationals and natives in countries like Germany, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Netherlands, Sweden, and the United States, these questions became increasingly crucial.
Rail: Would it be right to say that this series also introduced the subject of “home” in your work, in the sense of focusing on the specificity of place, whether that be Botswana or the larger region of southern Africa? Place seems central to your overall project.
Mokgosi: Home and place—or site—are two rather separate entities, and the project was looking more at sites as opposed to home. Indeed, focusing on particular sites allows me a kind of specificity that would otherwise be missing. So the site as an idea and its particularity are quite important. The nature of the specificity of my case study (southern African histories and politics) makes the work, I believe, more abstract and therefore open for the viewer. So the more specific the work is, the more abstract it becomes and therefore possible for the viewer to conscientiously project their reading. Sometimes I do fear that the specificity could lead to a kind of generalization and essentialization regarding the work, but I cannot control that.
Rail: The more general associations, relating to issues of injustice or representation, for instance, could be considered by viewers who don’t have access to the specificity that you’re referring to.
Mokgosi: Yes, my hope is that, although some audiences may not have access to what some of the specificity is pointing to, they will be able to identify other reference points that may be informative. My work does deal with issues of injustice, representation and, in some regards, blackness. It may be a stretch to connect this to how these things are understood in the American context, but I hope the connection does exist. There are obviously big differences between British colonialism and enslavement, which historically informs the African-American identity. In Botswana, our perspective is not formed through racial categories as it is in this country, yet we have been conditioned to accept the white foreigner as always a better version of what we aspire to be, although this is disappearing now. The formation of South Africans’ general conception of the world, like in the U.S., is inescapably conditioned by race: that is, any and all subjects who are brought up in these two places, like it or not, have racial categorization as part of how they conceptualize the world. In South Africa it was formally legitimized by the Population Registration Act of 1950, which divided the population into four groups: Whites, Natives, Coloreds, and Indians. In the U.S., the institutionalization of race occurred at a different pace, but at its core, the importance of race was—and still is—substantiated by the extent to which people believe in it and by the very reason of its existence. That is, its purpose as something that was designed to secure domination for Europeans, to paraphrase a colleague. This machinery continues to serve this function: namely, the systematic exclusion of a sector of a population from power, authority, governance, and wealth, not to mention the basics of social welfare.
Rail: Did your move to the U.S. encourage you to consider blackness and identity specifically within the American context, as something separate from your explorations within a southern African setting?
Mokgosi: Yes, I’m at a point where I am thinking about these things more and more within an American context, more so because I have been here for quite some time. My paintings cannot directly address these issues within the American context, but I rely on my role as a teacher, to engage with them. I do think there is a correlation between issues of race here and how they manifest in South Africa. The question of race is a complex one. Being black or white here in the U.S. automatically and symbolically functions as a trigger of associations that place you in either the group whose ancestors were enslaved for generations, or the other group, whose ancestors benefited handsomely from turning black muscle and bone into profit, that strategically dehumanized and chained generations of another people, confining them only to forced labor and denying them the slightest possibility of ever being counted as human.
Rail: So you’re saying that to be an American is intrinsically to be brought up with a racialized perspective of the world.
Mokgosi: We all know that no one is really black or white, yet we buy into these categories and attach our identities to them. We attach the formation of who we are to these shortcuts; we are quite comfortable to perform narrow stereotypes of our identities. I do not know much about this, but I think part of the difficulty in dealing with the issue of race here is acknowledging that the American perspective is an irreversibly racialized one. The only way for Americans to fight this sustainable racialized underdevelopment, guaranteed by the legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism, is to collectively undermine this perception of the world and find ways to repay ancestral debts.
Rail: You have said that your work has always been political.
Mokgosi: Yes, my work has always tried to engage with contemporary political events and issues. The big change, I think, is that after college, politics began to be filtered through different kinds of theory. I use theory as tools that guide how I may or may not want to look at a set of questions. So instead of a reactionary, pan-Africanist, generalized conception of politics and Africa as a whole, I try to narrow my focus with specificity. The former seemed to always already essentialize and reduce complex histories and ideas into general statements. I have come to see this as violent, and I think it also produces a weak argument.
Rail: Is social responsibility tied to the role of the artist?
Mokgosi: I cannot say that there is anything such as social responsibility because that would be too prescriptive. However, I am committed to the idea that as cultural producers, artists ought to critically consider, yet not necessarily engage with, how they conceptualize this thing called “culture.” It is only in doing so that these cultural productions can be understood. So, for example, since we are already implicated in the circulation of global capital, one important question then is: to what extent do we allow our studio practices to reproduce the existing socio-economic relations to production? The question of culture is also key, although this might seem like a rehash of the 1990s. My reason for saying this is that how an artist understands the idea of culture has ramifications in terms of what he or she produces as cultural objects. Put otherwise, I would say that art is a personal and strategic way of trying to pose urgent questions through ambivalence, ambiguity, and polysemy—and done in a way that defines and acknowledges “culture” to perform specific roles in society.
Rail: How did you prepare for your current exhibitions at Jack Shainman Gallery?
Mokgosi: This body of work was produced over a two-year period and developed around ideas of allegory and lerato (love). The impetus here was to experiment with visual and narrative strategies that did not depend on sequential expectations. In my readings, I found what I had felt for a while but was never able to formulate: the idea that allegory is always something through which 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. The viewer is aware of how he or she is reading something the moment that he or she starts to read it.
Rail: And this led you to the painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau?
Mokgosi: Yes, these preoccupations led me to a chance encounter with Bouguereau’s 1883 painting, The Motherland. It struck me as a peculiar allegorical and history painting that did not feel right in its representation, and so I began an in-depth examination of his tropes, techniques, and history. Added to this inquiry, and perhaps more importantly, was the coincidence that most of the paintings that I was looking at were painted around or during the Scramble for Africa. Although coincidence is sometimes seen as arbitrary, it was an important factor in this case because it revealed something quite difficult to ignore: that History, with a big “H,”, is better understood through historicity. Quite broadly, historicity can be thought of in relation to the idea that history is not something that happens, but as something that unfolds in different directions and 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 set out to navigate ways in which I could, as a black southern African painter, create complex representations around the idea of love through literary theories of allegory.
Rail: Both bodies of work that make up the show—Lerato and Comrades II—are individual chapters from your series “Democratic Intuition” (2014 – present). What direction will this project be taking next?
Mokgosi: Overall, this project aims to ask questions about how one can, without becoming overly academic, approach ideas of the democratic in relation to daily lived experiences of the subjects that occupy southern Africa. In dealing with this material, I focus on the ways in which democracy is 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. If the democratic is primarily founded on the simultaneous recognition of alterity and ipseity, then this chapter, Lerato, seeks to uncover how the manner in which individuals invest intense emotional energy into others and objects, and how these investments play out in relation to the democratic. The next chapters that I will be working on for upcoming exhibitions are “Triomf,” “Lex,” and “Gloria.” “Triomf,” for example, aims to investigate how access to intellectual labor affects both the understanding and reciprocation of democracy at the level of daily lived experiences. The chapter title refers to a set of historical events that helped cement apartheid in South Africa, specifically during the 1950s with the forced removal of black South Africans from the Johannesburg suburb of Sophiatown. A legendary black cultural center of the nation, much like District Six in Cape Town, Sophiatown was razed after black South Africans were forcibly moved to Soweto on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Subsequently Sophiatown was remade as Triomf, and became a working-class, white South African neighborhood. Through the destruction of sites like Sophiatown that fostered black intellectual creativity, black South Africans were actively and purposefully distanced from engaging in intellectual labor. In addition to these removals, laws such as the Bantu Education Act, which barred blacks from attending existing schools, also created a separate education system for the sole purpose of preparing all black South Africans for life as manual laborers; and the Group Areas Act—which segregated suburbs, created townships and separated blacks into tribes—were all crucial in formulating an oppressive system of intergenerational epistemological violence whose effects are still felt today. The legacy of these laws, institutionalized racism, and denial of education, affect the ways in which ideas of democracy are lived, how the state has transitioned since independence, how democracy was understood during the fight for equality versus now, and why the problem of inequity persists. In examining these histories, this multi-panel painting installation will look specifically at ideas of labor.
Allie Biswas is a critic based in London. She is co-editor of The Soul of a Nation Reader: Writings by and about Black American Artists, 1960-1980.