Pax Kaffraria: Terra Pericolosa, 2013
d from the artist’s website
If you stand in the center of the gallery space and follow the paintings in a circle you first think, flat alphabet. Meleko Mokgosi’s panels portray the drama of post-colonial Southern Africa. The repeating element: bodies in different stages of objectivity, flat as in the first spatial condition of a collage. It’s true I think of Mokgosi’s paintings not so much as paintings, but more as something visual. Like a diagrammed sentence full of these cerebral entry points, a weaponized grammar. My viewing feels weaponized. I am looking at targets first, and rules second.
Like when you are in front of a Nancy Spero triptych and you know you should be dealing with a sense of duty in the white space. But there in the duty-as-project is where she shoots you into a fishier space. Space as opposed to atmosphere—space as in a springy teleology. She saw the crime in the default viewpoint of the canvas, renamed her media(s) as boundaries to be both studying and genital voyages. Spero-the-astronaut’s negative spaces were sometimes a sky, sometimes chauvinism—the way Mokgosi’s negative space is also sometimes a sky, sometimes chauvinism.
Terra Pericolosa is one of the eight chapters in the Pax Kaffraria series. “Terra pericolosa” is an Italian phrase that means “dangerous land,” which was conventionally used in maps to denote dangerous places to travellers. Another chapter in the series, Sikhueselo Sembumbulo, is a Xhosa word that means “bulletproof,” and is a reference to the “Xhosa cattle killings” in the 1850’s. Yael Lipschutz explains: “when the Xhosa people in Cape Colony (formerly part of Botswana, Cape Colony is now part of South Africa) sacrificed over 400,000 cows in order to revive the spirits of their ancestors and thus combat colonial power.”
All this machinery connects very viscerally for me when I listen to Mokgosi speak in a video recording at The Studio Museum in Harlem where he was the Artist in Residence, 2011-2012. People ask me why aren’t there more white people in your paintings, he starts. And his answer is so consular, like he’s directing populations through is paintings. Then if you keep listening you get really excited at how forthcoming he is about the business of painting. You get this sense he’s super absorbed watching these mythologies and assumptions looped around colonialism play out in a commercial gallery space. Like this is a sense of the private for him, where all this thinking is done. Like a psychic capital he’s managed to stand alongside of (to show its marks).
Mainly his paintings, shown as interlocking panels, circumscribe the viewer with as much bare canvas as painted figures. What context would these figures satisfy, I almost think he wants to wonder. Or that the context is somehow overpainted, or even worse a privilege the painting can’t afford. Why do it again. His figures do not float in the bare canvas, because this would make it a negative space. They struggle against the negative space, maybe deceiving it. The canvas becomes some kind of interrogation lamp. But then you feel, as a Western eye, like you are the one holding the lamp.
“I have always believed that one can only transgress the medium by working within it.” Mokgosi presents his projects of scale in the genre of social commentary. He is a painter of all give. As in I feel like I am completely the point when I am surrounded by his work, me as the viewer, the rules for reading, as a white Western viewer. And the spaces that sustain the rules. When an interviewer asked how splitting his time between the US and Botswana affects his art, he retorts: “I do not consider myself hyphenated. Just attached.”
There is a tradition of the unfinished painting, especially when it comes to the social commentary painting. A tradition squarely Western. Mogkosi’s attachment addresses this tradition, too. His towering stories are not imposing in any sense, they are towering ideas of connection. He is eyeing the whole raft.
I see the paintings of Meleko Mokgosi as a reverential disassembly, via the narrative triptych. He hands us 3D-printing-gridded truth-acts—deposited into the visual language of the oppressor, hatching a mark anew. Mokgosi trades in the cohesion of allegory. But does this mean he is hoisting around an ethics? Maybe in some frames he expects us to get to that, but I see the brilliance of Mokgosi as much a philosophical muscle as it is a dreamscape. And I don’t see how one somehow degrades the other. Mokgosi’s figures are alienated in their own canvases, their own forms. We don’t exist for you, they maybe are saying. Or maybe even worse, we are a failure.
In a mainly positive Hyperallergic review of Mokgosi’s recent show at the Jack Shainman gallery, The School, Faheem Haider also uses this word failure in relation to Mokgosi. The condition of the failure for Haider, though, seems to be mostly used to say there is an ethics before the work. Haider writes:
…[B]y picturing his views as a generic allegory, and not a deeply specific, modulated one that you’d encounter in, say, Kehinde Wiley’s work, Mokgosi fails the more pressing Aristotelian task of naming, defining, and examining the problems he wants to target.
…However, as institutional critique of the way museums have disarmed the political and cultural devastation of colonialism, the work fails. As a set of objects framed off, commodified, and ready to be packaged, sold and placed in storage in some collector’s vault, the work becomes just another example of work that succeeded better as an idea.
I read these thoughts and I wonder if Haider is expecting Mokgosi to expose some hidden meaning. Gestures of linearity, right, or the paintings to declare something as right. I wonder if it’s (at the onset) problematic to 1) lay these pedagogical expectations at the feet of these works and 2) to say that Mokgosi’s narrative paintings would be a “success” if they were not a commodity (hanging in a gallery space).
My resistance to this second point is multi-pronged.
To say the work succeeds better as an idea is the ultimate sanitizing statement. Mokgosi’s failure-subjects say, we see your sanitizing statements because we are the social contaminants. Yes the work is of failure. Mokgosi paints with the idea of the deficiency in mind. But these two things are not the same.
The way the work fails in the “Aristotelian task of naming, defining, and examining the problems he wants to target” is almost pressurized by the context of the gallery space (art retail). What loose tangle of narrative begins to fold into Mokgosi’s portraits. Where do our failing humans fit in a post-colonial society. Where is the narrative of oppression ever resolved. When did the commodity ever replace the idea.
The exchange of the painting does not sanitize the painting. It passes on its failures to its consumers, in our reception, which is yet another site of constipated realization. Painting’s station as imperial commodity, as advertisement for wealth, wealth historically derived from slave labor.
When the figures float for you, is when you are at your least prosperous reading.
Commodification treats the idea as a product (ugh). This means it assumes that a thing has an intrinsic value that can be drained, or ignored, or made lesser than the product value. It gives it heft, maybe. It gives it a product-face that we can then name failure.
To return to the Xhosa cattle killings, I can think of it as a sharply spiritual realism. It is a story of deficit. “I’m interested in the way the Xhosa used failure as a way to succeed.” Here Mokgosi is naming a consciousness. A creation of a transcendence in a nation, or rather in spite of a nation.
Allegory is in itself a package deal. It likes its default logic intact when imported.
Haider sees an incomplete allegory. He also sees these paintings failing when they betray their own form (“as a set of objects framed off”). Could this be possibly the more successful site of commodification? To see the deficiency as draining the art from the artwork?
What is failure then. Failure as a thinking thru, as a history that isn’t so much abstract or a luxury to tether onto the painting, but as a living infliction that Mokgosi is working through. I see Mokgosi’s figures as though they realize / are realizing this infliction of history, their realism proliferating the premise of their collective destruction. The canvas glares like the spore-language of euphemisms with which media permeates lived violence (a monetizing or a turning away). This is not a representation, this is an engrossment, and a disruption.
Yesterday I was talking to another poet about what it’s like being a poet in an increasingly commodified space and time but at the same time watching this ontology break down as soon as it’s deployed. I feel so intensely engulfed by Mokgosi’s work, the way I think his post-colonial narrative engulfs work-work, engulfs Institution. It’s obscene to produce work that disrupts capitalism (the heart of the West). Is it even more obscene (“the work fails”) when the artist implies (implements?) imperialist logic. To be so dedicated to the conditions it was created in, to smear it on its intro statements. Not so much a null and void of a mythos, but of a mythos fucking a mythos, which is a deep sacrifice for a history, in order to rub up on / rub out a present, devoted to a vision. A failure for sure but it’s not by Mokgosi, it’s by us.