An Interview with Meleko Mokgosi by Michael Anthony Farley

Meleko Mokgosi’s triumphant Baltimore Museum of Art exhibition Acts of Resistance closes this weekend. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Mokgosi, who hails from Botswana and now lives and works in New York, has quietly ascended as one of the greatest living painters. His epic works blend the European oil painting tradition with contemporary African imagery and the sensibilities of an installation artist.

In this latest show, Mokgosi responds to the BMA’s permanent collection. Installed in the museum’s European wing, Acts of Resistance defiantly subverts and compliments the centuries of Western art history it follows. It’s a body of work that must be seen in person and in-situ to be best appreciated, and lucky for us, has been extended to November 11. (I’ve long been a Mokgosi fan, so I was thrilled to see his work coming to Baltimore).

I caught up with the artist over email to talk process, site-specificity, “whiteness” as the art viewer’s default, the complications of post-colonial identity, and the new life he’s breathing into figurative painting.

Meleko Mokgosi, Photo courtesy Honor Fraser Gallery

 

Could you talk about how your show in Baltimore came to be?

The installation at the BMA developed through an intimate dialogue with Kristen Hileman and the European collection at the museum. The paintings in the exhibition make up the sixth chapter of a larger project, Democratic Intuition (2014-present). However this new chapter, Acts of Resistance, departs from previous installations because it responds to both the architectural site and permanent collection at the museum.

After doing numerous site visits over the course of two years, and as a result of incredible and instructive conversations with Kristen, we opted to forego the contemporary art section in the museum and instead conceptually and physically situate the installation in close proximity to the European permanent collection.

Acts of Resistance II. 2018 © Meleko Mokgosi. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

 

Can you talk about the concept as it relates to the title?

In Acts of Resistance, I wanted to examine both formal and informal forms of resistance, placing equal emphasis on both. In this context, I would define resistance as any instance where a subject rejects and refuses to give in to the oppression of her spirit. Where formal resistance takes aim at the state and institutional forces, informal resistance encompasses everyday acts, both unconscious and conscious. The installation notably confront the politics and histories of representation. From a Euro-centric vantage point, black figures are almost always interpreted as representing difference. In other words, to most museum-goers (and sometimes the museum staff), a painted black figure is inevitably seen as an exception to the “normal” array of white-skinned figures who dominate not only artworks, but positions of historical, political, and economic privilege.

 


“I would define resistance as any instance where a subject rejects and refuses to give in to the oppression of her spirit. Where formal resistance takes aim at the state and institutional forces, informal resistance encompasses everyday acts, both unconscious and conscious.”


 

A Euro-centric viewer’s reflection on a black subject in painting might encompass more than the idea of difference, but it can rarely escape entirely from this initial designation of “other.” My hope is that the installation compels viewers to give the subjects represented in my paintings more complex consideration. Just as the white figures depicted by European artists in the BMA galleries are first and foremost understood as representations of religious devotion, motherhood, power, wealth, love, and more rather than as “white,” my paintings present figures whose beauty and precisely-rendered attributes, emotional bearing, inter-relationships, and geographically-specific contexts seek to overcome generalizing categories and marginalizing reactions.

Every time I’ve seen your work it feels so different, depending on how it’s hung and the context. I imagine the BMA must be a really rich site for you to engage because the museum has a huge collection of classical European oil painting as well as one of the first and largest collections of African Art in the Americas. And the dominant discourse in the city’s art scene is so very much rooted in race and representation. Could you talk about specific decisions you and/or the curator made in response to this context?

I used specific paintings in the permanent collection to develop my compositions. For example, I was drawn to Madonna Adoring the Child with Five Angels, c. 1485-1490, a tondo by Sandro Botticelli’s (Italian, 1445-1510), as an emblem of a master narrative in Western painting that has taught viewers to read spirituality and adoration in the specifics of a subject’s gender and race. I also wanted to use less famous collection works to open up spaces for a nuanced contemplation of representational strategies applied to and by “marginal” subjects.

Portrait of a Young Lady, c. 1560, attributed to Caterina van Hemessen, courtesy of the BMA

 

My interest in Portrait of a Young Lady, c. 1560, attributed to Caterina van Hemessen (Flemish, 1528—after 1587), involves the question of whether the painting’s female creator—a rarity during the Renaissance—brings greater depth, empathy, or authenticity to her young female subject. It is also important to mention that van Hemessen created the first portrait of a painter seated in front of the canvas. Apart from the incredible skill visible in her painting, I was also fascinated by the metaphors embedded in the use of the golden chains. Although the wall label makes the painting out to be about costume and fashion, I think there is something much more important going on – given the nature of the subject represented and its time period, as well as the fact that van Hemessen was a talented painter, yet unable to continue as a practitioner due to divisions of labour, gendering, and sexism. All in all, I think the golden chains offer a proto-feminist gesture. I used van Hemessen’s image in the same painting that depicts Little Gypsy from the permanent collection.


“To what end is a pose that conveys a subject’s spirit of resistance, if it is rendered by a person who is utterly more empowered than the subject?”


In addition to highlighting the problematic nature of the imagery, I wanted to also express some admiration for the defiant stance and expression of Edme-Alexis-Alfred Dehodencq’s (French, 1822-1882) Little Gypsy, c. 1850. But again, this appreciation is tempered by Dehodencq’s exoticizing of his dark-skinned subject. To what end is a pose that conveys a subject’s spirit of resistance, if it is rendered by a person who is utterly more empowered than the subject? This inquiry not only underlies my analysis of Dehodencq’s image, but is implied throughout the present exhibition. And last but not least, it was important to install the paintings in close proximity to the grand European wing of great paintings. This seemed like a rare opportunity to put up my work in these beautiful “European” rooms with soaring ceilings, beautiful lighting, and intricate architectural details; as opposed to the regular and standardized “contemporary” rooms, which are more or less just big white walls.

There was a fantastic show a few years ago at the Walters Art Museum: Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, did you see it? I always kick myself for not buying the catalogue. So much of the exhibition text and accompanying talks focused on that idea of portraiture representing a concept v.s. an individual and how that’s complicated when we add the filter of racial “otherness.” It was curated from a starting point of wanting to know the biographies of the subjects.

I almost wish this show had happened now, because I think a lot of the discussion it brought up about identity and representation was so much more nuanced than so much of the dominant contemporary discourse—a discourse I’m so happy you’ve brought so much nuance to!

Acts of Resistance IV. 2018 © Meleko Mokgosi. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

 

I think a lot about this painting from 1599 by Andres Sanchez Galque “Los tres mulatos de Esmeraldas, (Portrait of Don Francisco de Arabe and Sons Pedro and Domingo).” It’s in the Prado in Madrid and was loaned for the exhibition—and no photo of it has ever done it justice. I believe it’s one of the first artworks that we could describe as “postcolonial” even though it was authored very much in the colonial era. But it’s this really hauntingly beautiful and strange painting that blends European, African, and indigenous Ecuadorian aesthetics and techniques in an image that’s very much a “document” but also reads as a collaborative portrait that depicts this family with a dignity that’s a direct challenge to the colonial gaze…  

Thank you for pointing me to this exhibition. I do not know much about it but will now do some research. Yes, I think the relationship between artistic/aesthetic concepts versus identity/the subject is an important one, and one that is mostly overlooked because as viewers we tend to be more invested in how something sits in relation to human history. This exhibition and the painting you refer too seem to be committed to a rather productive dialogue around the idea of the subject in relation to Michel Foucault’s notion of subjection (not subjectivity), which by all means refers to the constellation of forces that impose themselves on every subject and determines how each subject is formulated or produced.

However, in the current field of art, it has become increasingly difficult to hold on to this broader framework since there is a continued fascination with race and Blackness. Currently, it seems virtually impossible for the Black subject in any narrative to exist as just a subject, without a viewer projecting histories, metaphors, and metonyms connected to Blackness (in the Euro-centric sense). These limitations obscure important specificities about the lived experiences of any given Black subject, and perpetuate the binaries and politics through which Blackness is produced and situated. So my strategies of engaging with the Black subject (and here I should acknowledge that I am referring to Blackness in the African context and not to African Americans) is important to me because it is a way of figuring out the extent to which it is possible to delay projecting essentializing histories, metaphors, and metonyms onto representation of the Black subject, therefore allowing for an alternative abstraction of the subject within any given narrative.

And adding to the overdetermination of Blackness in representation is the notion of ‘identity’ and ‘identity politics’, which we can admit, is expected from very specific cultural producers. So it seems necessary to add that the interest in “identity” from the othered subject is connected to the discourse of race, therefore exposing how whiteness is produced and functions: first, because those who identify with whiteness are perceived as occupying the norm – a subject-position that is perceived as already understood; second, whiteness is connected to the construction of race and the structural complicity within a system that intentionally and unintentionally supports and justifies white supremacy.

Pared down, whiteness has been defined as a position in a power relationship that builds itself in opposition to all the people who are produced as non-white, and uses moral rhetoric and institutional forces to defend and systematize exploitation, racism, mass murder, and crimes of the empire. Therefore, to treat whiteness as the unspoken norm is to fail to see precisely how those who are perceived as white have systematically acquired this capital, buttressed by the particularities of the law. So what I find interesting about the show and painting you mention, is that they are not necessarily invested in race discourse or identity or even the post-colonial. Rather they are looking at the production, dissemination, and consumption of representation – which are absolutely connected to issues of power and the conditions under which we create knowledge and how we understand our experiences of the world.

Letter from Home, (Letter from Africa). 2017 © Meleko Mokgosi. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

 

Can you talk about the texts you included in the exhibition?

The texts outline a particular question that I think is important to the installation. This is a rather new strategy which I am trying out – and the main reason is to somehow bridge specific discursive and theoretical frameworks with the practice of painting. I am not sure how successful it all turns out, but it has been a productive strategy thus far. The texts in this installation tries to outline the question of race in relation to the production and dissemination of representation.

I’m always struck by how much you, as a painter, dialogue not just with the concept of painting as a mode of image production but with painting´s history and relationship to other media. What are some of your influences?

 There are many influences in many directions – but I am influenced by both literature and painting. In painting, my main influences are Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Kathe Kollwitz, and Leon Golub. I also look at film-makers like Peter Kubelka, Harun Farocki, and Fernando Ezequiel Solanas.

I love how much you make painting feel like filmmaking and I wonder how much that has to do with scale? Or perhaps a sense of storyboarding? I think a lot about how narrative art and cinema always used to be tied to “place”… like we “went to the movies” or went to see frescos/mosaics/stained glass… etc. I think there’s a sense of wonder to those experiences before technological innovations (whether it be streaming video or the Renaissance popularization of canvas as the support structure of choice) “liberated” the image from architecture (and allowed it to circulate as a commodity). But to me, your work always harkens back to this idea of painting as a “proto-cinema”… which is to say that we have all these global art historical precedents of artists making images that feel like they almost wanted to be movies, before movies existed… and they were often very much married to the spaces they inhabited.

The way you install your works really recalls muralism, or painting as installation. Could you talk about the sense of “place” in your work?

I have always thought of myself as a history painter making painting installations. So I have never been interested in the discrete art object constructed for “contemplation” and circulation in the market. But to address the question more, the concept of place is a crucial one for my work because I use this idea to refer to physical and psychic spaces, as well as historical, aesthetic, personal, emotional, and theoretical understandings of place.

For example, I try to paint images that are as specific as possible, and they all have to be connected to southern Africa. The specificity is really a way to do a couple of things: first, to allow a viewer to abstract from what is depicted because anytime we are confronted with something we do not know much about – we tend to project and abstract; secondly, the specificity also works against things that are universalizable. Additionally, the paintings try to question the psycho-somatic investments that situated in places and belonging. But really, most times my goal is to make the viewer feel out-of-place, for her to reconcile the idea that a sense of place is rooted more in our psychic realities and therefore mostly arbitrary yet meaningful. In other words, my hope is to create, within the viewer, a sense of mistrust and misplacement; that is, to not take for granted and question the categories within which we create knowledge and representations.

Acts of Resistance I. 2018 © Meleko Mokgosi. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

 

Do you work a lot from collage and found imagery?

My process is a bit lengthy. After months of research and traveling to photograph specific sites and subjects, I make detailed storyboards of each chapter – and each chapter typically has 10 to 15 paintings. The storyboards are all done as line drawings – and here I move a lot of things around in figuring out the composition, line, colour, gesture, scale and so forth. I then move from the line drawing straight to the canvas. So I do not make any collages, rather I use my photographic source material to construct line drawings. I use both found images and photographs I take myself, but I have also recently started working with photographers that I commission to photograph specific sites.

This might seem like a trite observation, but your paintings make me miss painting. They’re obviously so labor intensive, and you handle paint in so many diverse and sensual ways they make the viewer fall in love with the medium all over again. I’m not sure if “fun” is the right word to describe your surfaces, but it’s one of many visceral reactions I have looking at them. 

Thanks for saying this. Indeed, there is a particular love and intimacy in the act of painting – towards both the material and the subjects I depict. I have become especially obsessed with colour and colour mixing, so one of the things I do these days when I go to exhibitions and look at paintings is to try to identify the complexity of colours and colour mixing. I have found that many people no longer pay attention to how a painter arrives at certain colours or even the level of investment one has to make to become good at mixing colours.

But as you say, painting is seductive, and I think that holding the viewer’s attention (no matter what tools are used) is key in trying to get the viewer to engage with the ideas that the artwork is dealing with. Or as a former teacher once put, the painting has to be so sexy and so seductive that the viewer should want to eat it. So my aim as a painter is to try to find a balance between experimentation and economy of expression and materials; and between entertainment and conceptual rigor. The abstract and minimal brush mark that I use has a history of connoting a particular performativity of painterly-ness, and revealing something visceral about the construction of that mark. For all these reasons, and more, it has become a source of entertainment because it looks and acts like “painting” and “art.”

Acts of Resistance V. 2018 © Meleko Mokgosi. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

 

Can you talk about your process and relationship to the act of painting? What’s a day in the studio like?

I use abstraction as a kind of fake painterly-ness, and as a way of mapping things out with more economy. The quality of the unfinished surface however functions differently, i.e. to open up the pictorial space so that the paintings are not too cumbersome for the viewer. This has become more important when I deal with installations that are made up of eight to ten canvases that are nine feet by twelve feet each. So putting this many paintings in a single room and as one work has to allow for some breathing room. To add to this, I think the “modernist” abstract marks are also meant to contradict the genre in which the paintings falls into, namely, history painting.

But in terms of studio schedule, I am usually in the studio at around 8:30am and leave at 7pm or 8pm – and take about a 40 minute lunch break. My studio is a bit minimal and boring, so I do not have any artsy books or fun paraphernalia; I just have canvases, paints, and brushes – and this allows me to focus on painting. I used to listen to music in the studio a few years back but had to stop because it got to a point where I spent too long looking or the “right” kind of music to fit whatever mood I was in before I started painting. Now I don’t bother with it, I just get straight to the job. I do most of my research outside the studio, and fortunately I have an office at NYU – which is where my library is. But I should also add that I do not have studio assistants so I have to be engaged with all aspects of the studio, from stretching and priming canvases to painting and cleaning. It is all part of the job.

Acts of Resistance III. 2018 © Meleko Mokgosi. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

 

Your work manages to walk this interesting line between specificity and universality. By that I mean the figures in your paintings always read as individuals with their own stories but can be starting points for larger conversations—race, class, colonialism, etc… What I always walk away with is this impression that you’re trying to make sense of a place or context from afar. I think your specific relationship to Botswana—as unique as that socio political and personal story is—really speaks to this contemporary generational concern about our ties to “place” or “home” and what they mean.

We live in this almost unprecedented era of mass displacement, diaspora, immigration, globalization, moving for opportunities, etc… I think you capture those complicated feelings of not-quite-nostalgia or loss we feel when we think about our hometowns or a place we left that’ve changed (or not). Could you talk about the process of leaving/moving and how it changed your relationship to Botswana or how you think about the idea of “place” or “home” more generally?  

This is a great and thoughtful question, but I do not think my answer will do it justice; and I am especially drawn to your idea of the not-quite-nostalgia – this is fantastic. In terms of my relationship with home or place; I do not think that I have begun that process of leaving or moving because I still consider myself as fully Botswanan and therefore haven’t left. So I am not inclined to be part of the diasporic discourse. In order to be diasporic, one would have to believe and buy into the politics of not-belonging and situating themselves in an state of ambivalence and in many ways always trying to identify with the West.

My position is rather different because I believe that by continuously wanting to be and calling myself an African artist, my hope is that this will expand or broaden the idea of the African artist to include someone like me – therefore move the idea of the African artist away from the tired and stereotyped tropes we are used to nowadays. Second, I have always tried to find ways of forcing the Western viewer to somehow get to the counter-intuitive position of abstracting themselves so that they think of my subjectivity not in relation to them and my contact with the West, but rather for them to abstract themselves towards recognizing that they are like me, and not the other way around. Yet I have to admit that I have always tried to resist the idea of home or place because generally speaking – the attachment to ideas of origin by birth and so forth has always seemed dangerous to me because it is easy to go from there towards fighting for special rights that are granted by birth right or citizenship, in other words, nationalism.

So I usually say that place and home for me are more about my family than site or culture. I am quite opposed to the idea of the nation-state and national identification, but I am obviously bound to these things because their importance was programmed in me without choice.

Acts of Resistance I. 2018 © Meleko Mokgosi. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

 


 

Meleko Mokgosi: Acts of Resistance is up at the Baltimore Museum of Art through November 11, 2018.

Top Image: Meleko Mokgosi. Pax Kaffraria: Terra Nullius (No Man’s Land). 2010-2017 © Meleko Mokgosi. Courtesy of the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery, Los Angeles