On ViewThe Museum Of Modern Art
Projects: Dineo Seshee Bopape
July 1–October 8, 2023
Dineo Seshee Bopape’s first solo museum exhibition in New York is carefully attuned to histories of resistance. Embedded in the show is a refusal against categorization and linearity, as well as the question: How do we imaginatively retrieve or invent new methods for prospering? These ideas permeate across the ground-floor gallery where a video and sound installation, found and natural objects, and works in clay come together.
Bopape’s multichannel video installation Lerato laka le a phela le a phela le a phela/My love is alive, is alive, is alive (2022), displays below and above coastal waters from the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean, to Jamaica in the Caribbean Sea, as well as Senegal and Ghana, while the sound installation projects winds off the coast of Louisiana, Jamaica, South Africa, and West Africa. With water and air from multiple locations converging, Bopape’s artwork folds time and border lines. The installation unsettles conventional cartographies, creating intricate links across the African diaspora, as Bopape maps these divergent areas and their histories as deeply entwined.
Tracing the calm and turmoil of these seas, the video depicts fish, leaves, and sometimes Bopape’s hands gently moving with and against the tide. Bopape offers libation and organic matter such as fruit, flowers, and dyes in the open waters, while a nutshell carrying burning herbs floats across the surface. Conjuring ritual offerings grounded in recollection, reverence, and connectivity, Lerato laka le a phela draws attention to bodies of water as sources for healing and caches for memory, archives for what has been a site for future impressions.
Calling up the transatlantic slave trade, the exhibition text highlights the installation as an homage to the millions of African people who crossed the Atlantic, including “those who survived and those who fled into the waters to seek sanctuary.” In stressing the ocean as a site for trauma and refuge, Bopape’s intervention also underlines the possibility of water as a vessel for the ancestral and a keeper of memories, which history books have failed to realize.
Born in South Africa, a country where land matters stemming from the country’s colonial-apartheid period persist today, Bopape does not shy away from this discourse in this installation, but instead explodes it. Sand-colored rocks form an open circle around the video screens in which audiences can view the video. This circular formation calls to mind a kraal, one of the many terms used in South Africa to describe an enclosure for cattle and a place for communal gathering, that is broadly adapted today to symbolize collectivity and dialogue. Troubling the kraal as a masculinist and easily defined structure, scholar Fundiswa Kobo proclaims the kraal as a sacred space in which ancestral rituals are performed while encouraging us to rethink the kraal as a tool for liberation and the Black feminist imaginary.
As Kobo accentuates the role of Black feminism in disrupting patriarchal structures such as the kraal, Bopape’s assemblage of rocks hints not only at communality and spirituality but also to Black women’s voices. At the fore of the rocks stand two compact Ndebele dolls that could easily be missed beneath the towering video screens. These dolls point to Black women’s labor in southern Africa and high-low binaries, which have often relegated such objects to tourist stands, not art museums. Agitating the silencing of Black women’s practices in the art canon, and arguably other areas that have been overdetermined by male interpreters, such as the histories of slavery and liberation, Bopape’s small gesture gives credence to the ways in which Black women have and continue to envision an otherwise reality.
Bopape repeats the words “Lerato laka le a phela” over the speakers, which translates from Sepedi to English as “My love is alive.” As she grapples with perspectives of power that have rendered certain territories and their surroundings as uninhabited and unsacred, Bopape creates a message that signals love as divine, cognizant, and flourishing. To emphasize the legacies of these outlooks on power, Bopape acknowledges MoMa’s location on unceded Lenape land in text on the gallery wall, which brings to light histories of displacement and extractive practices that are intertwined in today’s artworld. Moreso, small-scale, organic-shaped clay works are presented across the gallery floor. To see these works requires one to crouch down. Created in collaboration with descendants of enslaved people who labored on the Menokin Plantation in Virginia, the clay objects underscore the close looking needed to engage histories of oppression. The rise and dips in these clay constructions invoke a closed fist and call up the Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, these clay works, which are made from the plantation’s soil, stand as cyclical forms that are intergenerational and suggest memory as not only embodied in the flesh, but also in the land.
The triangulation of water, land, and air in Bopape’s installation places weight on memory and being as environmental—bound in our bodies, the waves, soil, and atmosphere. Traversing spheres and elements, Bopape’s intervention confronts systems of antiblackness, which writer Christina Sharpe describes as being as “pervasive as climate” or as “the total environment” in her book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016). To amplify the ongoing resistance against oppression, categorization, and historical erasure, Bopape has given focus to approaches by Black women and the cacophony of African diasporic experiences across elements, time, and space. Bopape—reaching far back and into the now—offers urgent yet subtle gestures to fugitivity, spirituality, and healing that are bound to experimentation and open new paths for prospering.