While walking through the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance you will inevitably stumble upon the three large portraits that have been placed high on its walls.
Three wizened African faces float in space, the essence and personality of each character created through the meticulous use of line. These detailed graphite pencil-on-wall pieces masterfully bring to life the characters – giving us, the audience, an understanding of their lives. What many may not know is that these faces were brought to us by one of our own: Meleko Mokgosi ’07, who crafted these pieces during his senior year. This summer, Mokgosi became the first winner of the Mohn Award for artistic excellence, which will be handed out every two years by the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Culture Center.
Mokgosi, born in 1981 in Francistown, Botswana, is now based in Los Angeles, Calif. Raised and educated in Botswana, he came to the United States to further his studies. He draws on African history in recreating and reimagining events both “beautiful and brutal,” allowing for a unique sociopolitical critique. Combining both actual and metaphorical images in large-scale installations, Mokgosi poses the question of regionalism in post-colonial southern Africa, deftly juxtaposing elements of history, nationalism and globalization. With these tools, he creates a captivating experience that presents its theme in a strikingly raw fashion.
Mokgosi came to the United States in 2003 to study studio art at the College. After graduating in 2007 with honors, he furthered his studies at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s independent study program. After completing the program, Mokgosi went on to receive his Masters in Fine Art at the University of California in Los Angeles. The Mohn award was given to him for his large installation piece “Pax Kaffraria: Sikhuselo,” part of the 2012 “Made in L.A.” exhibit at the Hammer.
The Mohn Award is one of the largest in the artistic community: The winner receives a $100,000 award distributed over two years and the opportunity to have his work published. Like much of Mokgosi’s other work, the installation portrays powerful cultural and historical images. “Pax Kaffraria: Sikhuselo” spans three walls and is comprised of 10 large connected canvases. Figures both modern and historical dot the canvases, ranging from soldiers in gear to regular civilians. The work itself is a reference to the Xhosa cattle killings of 1856-57, which were performed by the Xhosa people of South Africa in an effort to repel colonists in the area. In what is clearly an anti-colonial piece, Mokgosi effectively illustrates the drive of the Xhosa people to resist colonial pressures. This ambition still lingers today, referring primarily to the “financialization of global capital.”
The title of the work, “Pax Kaffraria: Sikhuselo,” sheds light on its thematic content. Mokgosi altered the term “pax romana” to “pax kaffraria,” in a reference to the peace formed through brutality in the expansion of the Roman Empire. “Sikhuselo” is the Xhosa word for “bulletproof,” a word which highlights the tenacity of the people of the region shown in their fight for independence and cultural identity. The combination of these elements and themes creates a rich portrait of regional identity.
The piece itself is one of eight in a series that plays on the same notions of cultural identity and regionalism in a modern context through historical reference. Mokgosi is especially interested in the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, as well as the analysis of semiotics, weaving these into these intricate pieces to create an even richer experience.
Today Mokgosi is the artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, N.Y., and he is based out of Los Angeles. Perhaps Mokgosi’s greatest achievement in his work thus far is not capturing the changing dynamic of the world, but rather seamlessly expressing that dynamic to the masses.