Meleko Mokgosi: Democratic Intuition
For the first time, parts of Meleko Mokgosi’s seven-year and on-going project, Democratic Intuition, are being shown in the UK and Europe. The solo-exhibition sweeps across Gagosian’s Brittania Street gallery space; the scale of works are recognisably Mokgosi’s in their institutional-friendly/domestically unfriendly size, with one work stretching over 100 feet, and as you near, in Mokgosi’s distinct painting techniques. Democratic Intuition is made up of a multitude of layers, each a narrative to follow in unto itself.
This particular exhibition takes from two parts of the epic project, Bread, Butter, and Power (2018) and Objects of Desire (2016-20). The former explores aspects of democracy in postcolonial southern Africa through a twenty-one-panel painting. Mokgosi primarily turns to film theory to build a conceptual framework that helps the viewer make sense of the numerous narratives present through the work. Each panel acts as a storyboard, the first, for example, establishing the themes that will occur following and how they function. In this case, Mokgosi paints Mary Seacole, Angela Davis and Harriet Tubman alongside anonymous sitters. The panel introduces these identifiable struggles with those that occur unrecognised but are equally vital and impactful.
However, what interests me most, are the panels of texts in Setswana that go untranslated either in the work itself or alongside in a label as would typically occur. A non-Setswana speaker can only access the texts if they learn Setswana or if they are satisfied with the words of the individual sitting in the room to assist visitors. Centring Setswana, whilst also making it inaccessible to the non-Setswana speaker, forces the non-Setswana speaker, particularly English-speakers, to face this decentering and, in turn, recognise the privilege of being able to have access to knowledge ordinarily in both local and international contexts. I would like to hope that this pushes viewers to contemplate why this is the case. Not only does the use of Setswana centre the language, but also establishes, or demonstrates, the importance of oral tradition in Setswana from the sharing of the tales from Mokgosi to the attendants and then the visitor. Speaking generally, re-instilling the importance and respect for oral traditions in Western audiences plays a role in challenging arguments made for decades by colonial powers that societies across Africa did not have histories as there was no written record of them. Mokgosi’s insistence on no translation, although seemingly subtle, is an important demonstration of how to decolonise spaces and the individual.
It is also in the analysis of language in Objects of Desire that I am also most drawn too. Objects of Desire takes a different scale, with smaller, individual paintings collected in groups that draw from the archives of the Museum of Modern Art, New York and those specifically relating to the two crucial exhibitions, “Primitivism” in Twentieth-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (1984-85) and Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life (1997).
Mokgosi has printed the texts that went alongside the exhibition onto canvas and then annotated them. The annotations question the word choice made by the individuals who wrote them and what these words imply. For example, Mokgosi crosses out ‘response to tribal art.’ and writes, ‘why use “tribal”?’ Longer annotations made by Mokgosi draw from papers written by researchers such as Simon Gikandi at Princeton University. As Mokgosi rightly mentions during a tour, these exhibition texts, were often written by an intern or grad-student, and this is still often the case. Ultimately, the writing of these texts cannot be left to an intern or an individual who has limited knowledge of the work they are writing about. As I argue in my project, Beyond Law and Democratic Ideals, cultural texts uphold the colonial consciousness. If we were to spend just a bit longer on the texts we write and make sure they were written by an individual who understands the work and context, these texts would then play a role in subtly altering the ingrained colonial consciousness.
Mokgosi acknowledges that he does not aim to give the correct history and that, ultimately, “the viewer shouldn’t trust anything [he] has to say” as he is working in an aesthetic space. It is precisely this that is so important. The aesthetic space allows experimentation that other fields, such as academia, dedicated to decolonising language, do not. Too often, there is analysis on etymology and the multifarious contemporary uses of terms but little done to allow for experimenting and moving forward to decolonise language in practice where this problematic language still permeates. Mokgosi's 'free-hand' approach to analysing these texts makes arguments for decolonising language far more accessible, both in its theory and its practical application.
Artists can play a pivotal role in furthering discourse concerning the decolonisation of language and in particular language in cultural spheres. Through his work, Mokgosi makes problems in cultural spheres visible and astutely leads the way in demonstrating how spaces and individuals can lead practices of decolonisation.
Meleko Mokgosi: Democratic Intuition ran until 12 December 2020 at Gagosian London.