Postcolonial Cinema in Oil on Canvas, After Canvas: Meleko Mokgosi at the ICA Boston

by Michael Anthony Farley on July 10, 2015 Boston + Reviews

Meleko Mokgosi

In Meleko Mokgosi’s current exhibition at the ICA Boston, Democratic Intuition, painting functions as location. Individual canvases are hung end-to-end, wrapping the gallery to form a single installation. The effect is utterly transportative and cinematic. The irregularly-shaped, epic panels—each one large enough to support nearly life-size figures—form a sort of disjointed storyboard. We’re unsure of the narrative, as seemingly unconnected figures come in and out of focus in overlapping vignettes. What is the story?

Fragmented hints of interior and exterior spaces give the impression that Mokgosi is describing a certain place, but the specificity of miss-matched, often incomplete details allude to a desire to describe that place as more than the sum of its architecture or landscape. Within each panel, sometimes spanning two or three, a mise-en-scène might disintegrate into painterly abstraction or dead end at a poignant void of negative space.

The uncertainty of this interconnected landscape means that any individual panel can read very differently when liberated from the complicated context of the installation as a whole.

I was first exposed to Mokgosi’s work through his domestic scenes of people with dogs, and there’s something seductively ambiguous about these canvases as stand-alone paintings. They skirt the boundaries of cute or kitsch with a tone that compels us to take them very seriously. They’re not quite family snapshots and not quite portraiture in the classical tradition—an impression that isn’t just based on the fact that the majority (or potentially all, I can’t remember) of the human subjects are black. They feel documentary, yet fantastically constructed at the same time.

I first saw these family dog paintings when I was in a rush—they were shown in a cramped and crowded booth at the last Art Basel Miami Beach by the gallery Honor Fraser. I regretted not having more time with them, and found myself wondering about them as I walked the rest of the fair. They seemed so specific yet universal—the subjects were not merely figure models posed to represent an idea but individuals with stories—their location a mystery at the time. The non-descript patio could easily have been in Queens, Rio de Janeiro, London, Capetown, my hometown Baltimore, or Los Angeles, where Honor Fraser is based.

But that patio is in Mokgosi’s native Botswana, and that fact is largely what has defined the artist’s practice. In Democratic Intuition, Mokgosi envelops viewers with snippets of life in the postcolonial republic—reconsidering the white cube as a cinematic, immersive environment. The dog paintings are here, but now they’re subsumed as vignettes in an epic, often contradictory narrative. A somewhat foreboding mass of soldiers uneasily shares the space with a cluster of women performing an inscrutable task on hands and knees. Wildlife and domestic animals roam the canvases, at times overlapping with mundane tableaus of everyday life. I could’ve spent hours in this room and never been bored.

That collage-like assemblage of imagery doesn’t feel random, and it isn’t. Each panel is a meticulous composition, and the process behind their fruition informs their content. Mokgosi lives and works in New York, sourcing imagery from photographs and news clippings from his homeland. He’s selecting these images at a geographical remove, albeit with a personal connection to the source material. They feel calculated in the best possible way—but only occasionally cold.

One panel in particular stands out as a highlight, even in a room that is itself best considered as one fantastic painting. It depicts a woman in a space that might be an office—it’s hard to tell, and that’s part of the appeal. It requires an active reading on the part of the viewer to fill in the blanks around the sparse details of a setting within a country few American audiences are familiar with. Her skin is rendered photo-realistically in contrast to the rest of her figure. Her garments are described using a skilled economy of simple, dry brushstrokes that evoke the look of a silkscreened image.

That variety of mark-making is less readily apparent but perhaps more impressive in his depictions of singular objects that are texturally homogenous. A shiny leather chair, for example, is described with techniques ranging from watercolor-like washes to opaque backgrounds built up with glazing—all while maintaining legibility as a solid form. In the background, framed photos hint at political/historical events.

Details like that are scattered throughout Mokgosi’s paintings, at times with impressive realism and at others deliberately obscured. I get the impression that these images are loaded with significance, and occasionally felt frustrated by my lack of knowledge to fully access them. To be honest, I know very little about Botswana beyond what I’ve gleaned from binge-watching HBO’s The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (a somewhat guilty pleasure last winter, don’t judge). But there’s an undeniable sense of wonder from being exposed to the unfamiliar. As audiences who live in The West/Global North/Privileged-Imperialist-Zone, we’ve been conditioned to resist that impulse of curiosity lest we’re perceived as casting a problematic, colonizing gaze upon the culture of “The Other.” Mokgosi seems to anticipate and work around that discomfort—editing out the sensationalized “exotic,” emphasizing salient details, and speaking in a visual language that’s a hybrid of Western, Botswanan, and universal signs.

Of course, not everything can be translated, and Mokgosi readily admits that. The vast expanses of negative space in his paintings are an integral, contributing element of Meleko Mokgosi’s gestalt. They function both as a space for the viewer to imagine one’s own completion of the narrative and as a symbol of an American audience’s inability to fully comprehend the complexities of his country’s history, identity, and politics. He accomplishes all this and still manages to not come across as overly didactic or preachy.

That’s a fine line for artists to tread. All too often, artists with origins outside of Europe/North America are assigned the role of ambassador. This is especially true of African artists, whose work is frequently presented in Western/global contexts under an anthropological gaze. There seems to be an expectation that a work of African art is most valuable as a synecdoche for Africa—as if it’s the job of any one artist to teach or explain the entirety of a continent to foreign audiences. That’s an awfully big, unfair burden to place on the shoulders of an individual artist. I know this is a ridiculous analogy, but imagine if Jenny Saville had been expected to speak for all Britons when she lived and worked in Italy, rather than being viewed as “just” a painter. On some level, Mokgosi’s work subverts and exploits that unfair desire for evidence of “THE African Experience.”

Rather than attempting to tell us what Botswana is, Mokgosi shows us found images—almost to the point of overload—implying an incomplete, ever-changing accumulation. Despite the carefully coordinated palette, these hand-reproduced images suggest that there is no homogenous face to Botswana. This is all executed in a fluent esperanto of painterly techniques and styles that miraculously harmonize—evidence that Mokgosi is a painter well versed in the history and theory of the medium, not merely a skilled mimic dabbling to illustrate a point.

And a major component of painting’s history is its relationship to place. Prior to the innovation of the movable canvas panel as support, painting was married to architecture. The context of an artwork was a constant—frescos didn’t often walk away from their site. This place-lessness of painting would define various genres: sublimist landscapes offered citizens of the early industrialized world a glimpse of the frontier, reinforcing the idea of manifest destiny. Similarly, Orientalist tableaus constructed the Western conception of “The Other.” Paintings from early European modernists appropriated African aesthetics and disseminated a bastardized simulacrum around the globe. Decades later, the moving image was also divorced from architecture, when cinema went from being a ritualistic place to a medium that could be enjoyed in one’s own home, and eventually from the palm of one’s hand.

Mokgosi’s considers the ontological and social implications of all of the above—creating movable, cinematic murals that address the inevitability of visual language to be lost in translation when exported. Appropriately, photographing the installation is prohibited. And really, this painting/place is meant to be experienced, not viewed in segments as a thumbnail. It’s a long way to Botswana, but it’s more than worth the trip to Boston.

Meleko Mokgosi: Democratic Intuition is on view at The Institute of Contemporary Art Boston until August 9th, 2015 

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