Artist Meleko Mokgosi's Latest Paintings Capture Marvellous Moments

BY Paul Laster / Feb 11 2020 / 16:32 PM

Renowned for his exploration of political themes and life in Southern Africa, BAZAAR examines the Botswana-born artist’s latest project-based historical paintings

Artist Meleko Mokgosi's Latest Paintings Capture Marvellous Moments
Meleko Mokgosi
Bread, Butter, and Power

Recently appointed an Associate Professor in painting and printmaking at the prestigious Yale School of Art, Botswana-born artist Meleko Mokgosi has solo exhibitions at Jack Shainman Gallery’s two New York City locations and a big survey show at Shainman’s Upstate New York locale, The School; a travelling solo at the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago; a commissioned project at the University of Michigan Museum of Art; and an upcoming one-person exhibition at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM).

A graduate of Williams College and the University of California, Los Angeles—where he received a BA in Studio Art and an MFA in Interdisciplinary Studio, respectively—the Brooklyn-based artist also studied at the Whitney Independent Study Program and was an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum of Harlem, but he credits his high school teacher with setting him on a course to become a visual artist.

Introduced to the socially conscious work of the German modernist artists Max Beckmann, George Grosz and Käthe Kollwitz, who also taught, the young Mokgosi decided that he wanted to become an educator through art—a career that’s allowed him the luxury of developing his heavily researched allegorical art at his own pace.

Meleko Mokgosi. The Social Revolution of Our Time Cannot Take Its Poetry from the Past but Only from the Poetry of the Future, 10. 2019

A figurative painter, who is known for exploring political themes, concepts of democracy and post-colonialism in Southern Africa, Mokgosi makes large-scale project-based history paintings, which mine cinema studies, psychoanalysis, critical theory and cultural studies. Much like a novelist, he works in chapters. For example, projects from his Democratic Intuition series, parts of which are currently on view at The School and the Smart Museum, was spread across six years and eight exhibitions, including the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) last year.

Examining democracy’s effect on everyday life in Africa, the paintings—many of them employing text-based imagery—represent experiences and histories that have been excluded from the dominant narratives. Multi-panel canvases in the BMA’s presentation of Acts of Resistance depict subjects that refuse to give in to the oppression of her or his spirit, such as school children standing up for their right to be educated. Mixed with historical works from the museum’s collection, including Flemish Renaissance painter Caterina van Hemessen’s Portrait of a Young Lady, the show also gave a voice to Mokgosi’s work amongst the European masters.

Installation view of Acts of Resistance

At The School, which is an enormous school house that Shainman turned into a quasi-kunsthal/gallery in Kinderhook, NY, Mekgosi is exhibiting paintings from seven of the eight chapters of Democratic Intuition, including Objects of Desire: Reflections on the African Still Life, which features clever critiques of two controversial Museum of Modern Art exhibitions—Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern from 1984 and 1997’s Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life. Adding to his analyses, the artist interspersed his paintings with appropriated texts on the use of the word primitive in library cataloging and MoMA’s Primitivism wall labels with his annotated commentary.

The missing chapter of the series—Bread, Butter and Power, which consists of a single-room, 20-panel painting installation that explores the theme of feminism in the context of southern Africa—is on view at the Smart Museum. In one panel an attractive, young black woman sits nobly in a throne-like chair while reading a letter and in another part a group children break ground with shovels, as if they are starting the foundation for a new education building.

At Shainman’s New York City spaces, Mekgosi is premiering two new projects. “The social revolution of our time cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the poetry of the future,” which takes its title from a Karl Marx text about disavowing the past in order to achieve a revolutionary state, offers 12 paintings that are paired with texts taken from the writings of women from either Africa or the African Diaspora. A painting of a young black bride in her wedding gown is juxtaposed with a text from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, while a black boy on a horse is ironically set off by roughly typed text talking about the disappearance of fish from Uganda’s freshwater lakes.

Meleko Mokgosi. Lerato: Philia II. 2016. Oil on canvas. 238.8 cm diameter

Four blocks north, at Shainman’s other city site, Pan-African Pulp appropriates the imagery of an African pulp photo-novel about a black crime-fighter to present a story about Pan-Africanism with Mokgosi’s inserted dialogue, which changes the plot to highlight the aspirations of Africans to self-determination and self-governance. Presented in 31 canvas panels with some added commentary here, the graphic novel is displayed as jumbo vinyl works attached directly to the wall in the show at the University of Michigan, which commissioned this new body of work.

Meleko Mokgosi. The Social Revolution of Our Time Cannot Take Its Poetry from the Past but Only from the Poetry of the Future, 9. 2019

Capping off the artist’s string of exhibitions, PAMM brings Mekgosi full circle in the exhibition Your Trip to Africa, which features a series of newly commissioned large-scale paintings that together function as a single, unified work dynamically investigating his central themes, while gigantically storyboarding Africa like it has never been seen before.

Images courtesy of Meleko Mokgosi and respective galleries

From Harper's Bazaar Arabia Art Winter 2019 issue