Curator: Adi Gura, Assistant curator: Estee Balsam
Mohau Modisakeng (b. 1986, Soweto, South Africa) engages in questions of identity in relation to the history of black South African population, particularly the ways in which its past is evidently still present today. For Modisakeng, ‘the personal is political’ is more than just a figure of speech. Strongly influenced by his expriences as a young child growing up in Soweto at a time of a violent political crossroad, he employs his personal memory as a portal through which notions such as history, body and place can be explored within the post-Apartheid context. His photographs, films, performances and installations confront the contradictory politics of leadership and nationality, while attempting to unravel the legacy of inequality, capital and labor which accompany the pursuit after mineral wealth in contemporary South Africa. The presence and appearance of the artist’s body in his work constitutes not only a gesture of self-realization, nor does it merely acknowledge a subjective experience, but rather marks a significant departure from what could become a problematic portrayal of the other. Thus, by way of his personal lexicon rich with symbols and rituals, Modisakeng’s own body becomes both a means and a signifier.
Mohau Modisakeng’s self-portraiture draws attention to the corporeality and vulnerability of the body. Through his works, the artist maps and paves an alternative channel through which he explores dichotomies such as colonial and postcolonial, traditional and modern, male and female, human and animal, and image and reality. By placing his body in close proximity with a variety of materials and tools normally associated with violence, Modisakeng implies that these tools hold a wide scope of usages, ranging from oppression to liberation. Modisakeng’s works represent a poignant moment of mourning and catharsis, and respond in a critical manner to the heritage of historical exploitation and the contemporary state of much of the black South African population. His works critique the complex mechanisms of power and enslavement and their manifestation through colonialism, Apartheid and post-Apartheid.
The photograph Passage (2017) introduces a trinity of figures leaving their homeland by boat with the hope to find a better future elsewhere. The exhibition includes three works from this series, which also includes a video. Passage was chosen to represent South Africa in the 57th Venice Biennale (alongside works by Candice Breitz). To a certain extent, all of Modisakeng’s works concern passages of some kind, and express a clear understanding of the concept of transition as an existential state. As the boat moves deeper into its aqueous grave, the work illustrates how Modisakeng is at once rooted in the racial politics of contemporary South Africa, while also capable, quite literally, of floating above it.
Lefa (2015) takes its name from an exhibition titled Lefa La Ntate, which means “the legacy of my father” in Tsawana. Through a figure buried under a pile of coal, the work relates to the traumatic weight carried by the present generation entombed in the legacy of an oppressed black population. A reverberation of the tragic and traumatic story of capitalist exploitation, the work functions as a memorial to the hundreds of thousands who found their deaths while extracting minerals, the artist’s brother among them. This personal experience is inextricably linked to Apartheid and the laden history that preceded it. Modiskeng thus seeks to perpetuate the heritage not as a thing of the past, but rather as a historical present.
The series Zanj (2019) depicts figures on a bed of sand that becomes both an ocean and a desert to be traversed. In accordance with the poignant duality present throughout Modisakeng’s oeuvre, the bodies function as vessel and cargo simultaneously, while their fragility and stoic strength are contrasted. By symbolising the movement of bodies and trade between the Gulf area and the East African coast, Modisakeng employs this history of commerce as a departure point for a broader rendering of the historical and present-day implications of mass migration due to socio-economic conditions.
As in many of Modisakeng’s works, the hat in Metamorphosis (2015) is thematically anchored in masculinity. In this work in particular, the hat functions as a halo, as if the light is intentionally directed by the brim. While the man wearing the hat is the instrument of labor, the hat-turned-halo provides him with a certain sense of dignity, or a dignified appearance. In a suggestive manner, the work demonstrates the anonymity and evolution of a person’s identity, which often morphes and transforms. This series is a meditation on the image of blackness and its altering by colonialism and Apartheid.
In Inzilo (2013), Modisakeng performs a traditional mourning ceremony that unfolds a narrative of mourning and starting over, while dealing with personal and political loss and pain. However, this work is not merely an expression of grief, as in its core lies the artist’s portrayal of the female widow. By enacting a ceremony traditionally performed by women, Modisakeng uses his own male body to engage performatively with the liminal state of widowhood, which is traditionally categorized as weak as opposed to male-related resilience. As the ritual proceeds, it becomes evident that Modisakeng’s body is a mediator for the history over which he is mourning, all the while undermining gender divisions. Performing against a white, vacuous backdrop, he is surrounded by emptiness. This seclusion creates an image stripped of what Modisakeng refers to as ‘unnecessary signifers’. As his figure turns subtly inwards while gesturing outwards, the video offers a less threatening imagined future, and captures a present moment seeking to move forward.
Facing Eilat street is Zion (2018), a work that addresses the relationship between body and place. The elementary idea that all people are meant to belong somewhere is undermined in light of the reality wherein millions of people, many of them South African, are forced to migrate across borders in search of refuge. Although this work lacks any obvious signifier of place, when viewed in light of the artist’s South African context, the woman depicted seems to struggle to retain a sense of home.
Tue – Thu
By appointment only
11:00 – 16:00
11:00 – 14:00