Meleko Mokgosi discusses democracy, diverse populations

Lex and Love, an exhibition of new work by Meleko Mokgosi ’07, fits the upstairs 1954 Gallery at the Williams College Museum of Art perfectly – the multi-panel paintings of democracy, or what it strives to be, in Southern Africa are striking. They project into the viewers’ space, confidently aware of their visual presence. Lex and Love are the two latest chapters in Mokgosi’s Democratic Intuition project, which he began in 2014 and exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston and Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. Subtly but effectively curated by Lisa Dorin, each work is given ample room to breathe. The exhibition thus asks: how does a Western art history represent a specific, Southern African culture?

Walking into the gallery, viewers are led directly into Mokgosi’s “Democratic Intuition, Lex I.” They meet the various figures’ gazes at just a bit above eye level and are brought to engage with them. The work, made up of seven panels positioned next to and stacked on top of each other, begins on the left with what seems like a graduation portrait, then moves into a depiction – no, portrait – of a beautiful, striking cow. It brings to mind Dürer’s hulking, stolid rhinoceros, except Mokgosi’s creature lurches with a full, commanding presence. The muscles in its abdomen, rendered in cloudy swirls of gray and black paint, are so thick they ripple and appear blurred.

But it is in the details that Mokgosi displays his absolute skill in handling color to tread between the figurative and the abstract. He offsets the dark colors of the cow with fast, vibrant brushstrokes in the accompanying details that pop out and play with perspective. The bright red rope pulled through the cow’s nose ring, and the grass, painted in quick passes with shades of varying green, both contrast with the cow’s very real presence and add to its tense resilience.

At the center of “Lex I” is a family dressed in standard formal attire – suits and ties for the men, dresses for the women – but the scene is bookended by two children standing behind elephant feet, and the men are wearing leopard pelts over their suits. There’s something seductive and regal about the scene. Directly above the group, flipped upside-down, are two panels depicting a military gathering, with flags, men in uniform and the same cow, this time obediently leashed. The figures in “Lex I,” as in Mokgosi’s other paintings, are culled from a personal archive of images of friends, family and strangers – both found in books and other media and taken himself. Their identities are not so important as their representations – Mokgosi uses and reuses figures in multiple panels and across paintings.

Looking at the edges of both scenes, Mokgosi has painted a few rough strokes, tearing at the fabric of his smooth, uninflected backgrounds. He does this in several other paintings in the exhibition as well – perhaps it suggests that certain scenes are mirages, that these triumphant celebrations of Mokgosi’s Botswanan culture can only be imagined, and not presented, in Western art history.

Previously, Mokgosi refreshingly criticized art history’s propensity to exclude in “Modern Art: The Root of African Savages, Addendum,” an installation of 22 linen panels onto which museum wall labels have been printed and subsequently edited by Mokgosi. Subjects include an Alfred Stieglitz photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe with an “African-inspired” Matisse sculpture and installation photographs of an exhibition titled “Recent Paintings by Pablo Picasso and Negro Sculpture.” Densely filled and scribbled over with Mokgosi’s edits, the wall labels regrettably showcase art history’s ignorance and glaringly point out the tendency for it to treat African art as no more than fetishized props.

One wall text quotes from an essay: “There is something talismanic in the influence which Negro Sculpture has wielded in Modern Art. The fetish has resumed its commanding position. It has pointed to our artists a new road to follow, inspired new creations…” Art history is not interested in the people or the culture behind African art – only in its sculptural forms, seen as erotic and able to be appropriated.

In the adjacent gallery are Mokgosi’s works from his Lerato series. “Democratic Intuition, Lerato III” is made up of two square paintings diagonally rotated and centered on the wall. On the left are two dignified, divine Africans – a man holding a winged woman that partially sits on his shoulders. The work is painted on a black background so that the figures hide in their shadows and fade in and out of focus. This makes them all the more striking when you fully see them. The lighting is dim, not directed onto the painting but just to the left and right of it. This allows the subjects to glow, but not be bathed in light. Just to the right and below this panel is a smaller, cream-colored panel overlaid with a folk tale in Setswana – but the tale can only be recounted verbally, not specifically transcribed or translated.

“Democratic Intuition, Lerato IV” shows a man overseeing a wrestling match between another man and a winged figure, their arms locked and muscles flexed. Each figure is poised to push the other over. But there’s one detail that’s off – the wrestlers’ feet almost seem to disappear into the sand, rendered with hardly as much detail as the rest of their bodies. The sand on which the wrestlers stand, the foundation of the entire work, is painted like the grass in “Lex I,” ready to blow away.

Mokgosi references a Western painting that celebrates the nude and the beauty of the human body – but the black body instead of the white body. He shows us that there’s a history here, in Southern African culture, but asks why it refuses to stick and why it’s unsteadily planted in the grass or sand. His depictions of democratic life are clear and spectacular, but at the same time his nimble, visceral strokes are tense, suggesting that the subjects are this close to unraveling.

Mokgosi asks a bigger question with his work, partially answering it with his paintings, rife with narrative, that demand repeat visits. Who decides the structure of art history – who decides who is represented, and who is ignored?

In ‘Lex and Love,’ Meleko challenges Western representations of Africa and investigates the irresolvable contradiction that is democracy. Photo courtesy of WCMA.