In 2016, Jack Shainmann Gallery in New York dedicated both of its gallery spaces in Chelsea to the paintings of Meleko Mokgosi. Born and raised in Botswana, it was the artist’s first solo exhibition in New York. The unusual gesture of devoting not one, but two spaces to an emerging artist proved to be warranted. Mokgosi’s paintings are supremely painted and technically astute, with distinct allusions to the work of the nineteenth century neoclassicist, William-Adolphe Bouguereau. At the time, writer Hakim Bishara noted the reference to the French master in his review of the show, before deftly riffing on the defiance of status quo Mokgosi evoked by doing so. By inserting Black women into these classical positions, Mokgosi provided cutting commentary on the illusion of a maternal France (which once colonized so much of Africa) by “dressing up Bouguereau’s maternal France with a “black mask” to resist that same status quo.” As the colonized walls of visual art continue to crumble all too slowly, Bishara’s commentary on Mokgosi’s work remains relevant.
— Jessica Holmes, Editor-in-Chief
What happens when a decolonized nation is suddenly introduced to self-governing after decades of dehumanizing oppression? What if the damage inflected upon its social fabric cannot be reversed? How fast would it devolve to chaos and tyranny? What power does the individual have in the face of a violent disintegration of the collective? These are the questions investigated in Botswana-born Meleko Mokgosi’s exhibition Democratic Intuition, his first solo show in New York City.
In a two-part exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery (Democratic Intuition: Lerato at the gallery’s 20th St. location and Democratic Intuition: Comrades II at 24th St.), Mokgosi presents the latest of an eight-chapter project that he has been working on since 2014. Earlier chapters were presented in 2015 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston as well as in various other venues around the world. In Lerato—which, in the South African language Setswana, means love—Mokgosi presents a series of colossal paintings (all 2016) with direct references to the allegorical paintings of French neoclassicist William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Most striking are Agape I and II, Mokgosi’s reinterpretations of Bouguereau’s 1833 painting Alma Parens (The Motherland), in which a bare breasted white woman is seen nursing nine children congregating around her against the backdrop of a scenic mountain. The title of the work gives its patriotic symbolism away. Bouguereau, a 19th century Paris salon painter, was nonetheless denounced as a renegade in his time for violating the sacred innocence of classical mythology with his realistic style of painting. Mokgosi’s adds his own transgression by rendering Bouguereau’s maternal figure as an African woman.In Agape I, the black mother—i.e. motherland—nurtures a group of white children circling her, thus transmuting Bouguereau’s allegory to France’s exploitation of Africa’s natural resources. In Agape II, Mokgosi adds another layer of intervention by replacing the earthly mother in Agape I with a younger and more contemporary black woman who defies her maternal role. Her breast kept covered, the young woman leaves a heap of supplicating white winged children unheeded. W.E.B. Du Bois writes that black people had to wear “white masks” to get by in a white world, thus sustaining the status quo. Mokgosi upends this narrative by dressing up Bouguereau’s maternal France with a “black mask” to resist that same status quo. The winged children in Agape I come to symbolize today’s righteous and innocent looking Europe, which nevertheless still feeds off Africa’s resources.
In Comrades II, a series of large canvases arranged tightly side-by-side allows images to spill from one frame to another. Unlike the allegorical tone of Lerato, here the paintings portray situational domestic scenes, verging on the cinematically banal, from the lives of ordinary people: a family in their living room; a woman sitting on a balcony; a young man standing on a door stoop—all captured in the moment. In the 1980s, some leaders of the ANC (African National Congress) allied with the Soviets in the hope of receiving their assistance in toppling the Apartheid regime. It was a high hope for a low heaven. The disillusioned comrades in Mokgosi’s paintings are people who are simply waiting for better times to come. In Botswana’s case, better times have come earlier than in other neighboring countries. In 1966, the small South African nation declared independence and has since been considered a thriving democracy. However, the increasing discrimination of the indigenous San populations, the outlawing of homosexuality, and a recent media crackdown by the Democratic Party, which has ruled the country since its independence, are putting at risk Botswana’s reputation as a success story of African democracy.
In a backroom at Jack Shainman’s 24th St. location, an entire wall of the gallery is dedicated to a 14 x 11 inch self-portrait, in which Mokgosi is seen gazing forward. As the only small-scale painting in the exhibition, its placement seems at first as an egotistic choice by the artist, or an odd curatorial decision. That is until we see what the self-portrait is gazing at: a painting of school children dressed in a colonial uniform posing for a group photo. The two other paintings of school children in the room further support the narrative of the artist looking back at formative moments in his life. In another act of transgression, the many large pieces containing Setswana texts inscribed in bleach over linen are left without translation. “My reservation about translation has to do with the fact that translation—as a process that tries to close the gap between two languages—is based on Western conventions (here anthropological, there ethnographic) of reality, representation and knowledge,” says the artist explaining his decision. Based in the U.S. since 2004, and educated in some of its most prestigious academies (BA from Williams College; MFA from UCLA) Mokgosi is less troubled by identity questions and more interested in historical processes. “I am as American as anyone and as much a Motswana as any, so I do not consider myself hyphenated. Just attached,” he says in another interview.
Although he reserved a long of period of time to researching African history and postcolonial theory before picking up his brush, as he testifies of himself, Mokgosi’s work does not claim to provide answers to the questions it raises with regard to power, oppression and democratic representation in postcolonial Africa. Instead it takes action by subverting the West’s grand narratives and by resisting the mediation of his ideas through the translation of his native language to English. Eventually, this investigation of the democratic intuition leads Mokgosi back to the basic human impulse that truly binds people together, and which political oppression cannot control: Lerato.
“Meleko Mokgosi: Democratic Intuition: Lerato & Democratic Intuition: Comrades II” was on view at Jack Shainman Gallery 513 W 20th Street and 424 W 24th Street from September 8 through October 22, 2016
Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic and co-director of the artist-run gallery Soloway in Brooklyn, New York.