Meleko Mokgosi infuses everyday scenes with light

Cheetahs raise their hackles against an abstract background like blown sand. Two boys play with a sleek black dog in a spare, shaded room, in a bar of bright sun from the doorway. A well-dressed man in khaki leans back in a director’s chair in a room rich with thick carpet, masks and sculptures, while a girl sits somberly beside a sideboard of curved wood.

The murals fill entire walls with warm, varied images of daily life in southern Africa, in Meleko Mokgosi’s Lex and Love, an installation of paintings and text at the Williams College Museum of Art.

They are everyday scenes, said Lisa Dorin, Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs and Curator of Contemporary Art. These are not the images of violence and poverty the American media usually shows of African life. Here, mothers hold children and women in bright robes seem poised for a gala.

Mokgosi has chosen these people and places to reflect on the present and the past in countries that were European colonies not long ago and have absorbed or transformed a European idea of democracy — and to consider history and the ways different players tell it.

Mokgosi, born in Botswana, is a Williams College alum (class of ’07), and Lex and Love presents two new chapters in his ongoing project, Democratic Intuition, along with an excerpt from Modern Art: The Root of African Savages, challenging and reflecting on the history of art in the last century and the African artists who deeply influenced European Modern artists.

Lex comes from the legal concept of lex loci actus, or the law of the place where an alleged act occurred, and the paintings in this sequence reflect on how the rules of a community act on the people within it, male and female, rich and poor, in their lives and work and families.

Love invokes love stories in Setswana, Mokgosi’s native tongue, and re-imagines eight paintings by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Dorin said. Bouguereau was an artist well-known in the 1890s and all but forgotten when Modernism swept his classical style aside with new art forms like Cubism fueled by the abstractions, colors and energy of art from many parts of the African continent.

Lex and Love, the two chapters, are part of a larger series.

“Democratic intuition, like all my other projects, began with the title,” he said.

He sets the title as a framework that grounds the whole project.

“So before I make any drawings or paintings, it is necessary that I come up with the title and inter-titles (chapter titles).”

He begins each chapter with in-depth research and found images as well as objects from photographs to sand samples. Like Robert Rauschenberg (the focus of an exhibition drawing on newly released archives from his life and work), Mokgosi works in collage to build massive images — and as a recent artist-in-residence with the Rauschenberg Foundation at Captiva, Mokgosi studied Rauschenberg’s techniques for creating large-scale prints. But Mokgosi works in paint, and his process has elements of the cinematic.

“I story board all the paintings that will be produced,” he said. “In the story boarding phase, I make one “master” drawing or diagram per painting. And in this drawing, I figure out the composition, line work, color schemes, brush strokes, and the general layout of every frame as well as how each frame relates to the one next to it. More importantly, I consider how each frame fits into the installation as a whole. I should also say that this project is still in progress so I am still figuring out a great deal of details both about the content and how I want to engage with it.”

In the show as a whole, he is engaging in a conversation between celebrating his home and challenging European ideas about Africa, and he is defining a kind of democracy that has grown on his home ground. The West holds democracy as an ideal, he said, and yet their own interactions with many African countries have historically been far from democratic.

“There were many contradictions that came into play when European colonizers compelled by their idea of enlightenment committed to their ‘civilizing’ mission on the African continent,” he said, “and how this affected their motivations, appropriation of materials from the continent, the slave trade, legitimization of racial classification, and so forth. So both the painting and text installations deal with these, although with different strategies.”

In “Love,” he responds to eight paintings the 19th-century French painter Bouguereau made at the height of the scramble for Africa, as France joined the race to divide and colonize the continent. Mokgosi envisions Bouguereau’s European scenes with African men, women and children at the center, shifting the perspective.

In Modern Art, he annotates and argues with text panels from a recent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing the Western perspective the text unconsciously holds.

Modern artists like Pablo Picasso were greatly inspired by many African art forms, and Mokgosi’s reflections encourage readers to wonder who these African artists were, and how Modern art and artists might have looked to them. One artist Mokgosi quotes by name, A. Williams, who met Pablo Picasso and found him arrogant and appropriative: “It was a disappointment for stupid little things; I didn’t like how he behaved … He was just an ordinary past-middle-aged man. I remember his first comment. He said I had a very fine African head, and he would like me to pose for him. I felt terrible. He did not think of me as another artist. He thought of me only as something he could use in his work.”

As he shows these biases in the installation as a whole, Mokgosi defines democracy as the opposite — as inclusive.

The title Democratic Intuition he has take from a maxim of Gayatri Spivak, that the democratic impulse lies in recognizing other people’s children, not just your own.

Mokgosi substituted intuition for impulse, he said, with the sole purpose of trying to understand how people act intentionally within a democracy. He wants to explore the tension between the political structure people live in and the ways it shapes their relationships, and to understand the philosophical, theoretical and political baggage that comes with them.

In a democracy, a group of people bound by some common denominator (usually a nation state) are considered to be equal, and to have access to collective decision-making at an essential stage, he said. Each person has a freedom to act, but their actions involve other people and the community as a whole. Where does the individual meet the group?

Living in this kind of community, he said, means being able to say “I recognize you and I as someone else’s child, and although or because there is an incommensurable difference between us, I take you as my equal, no matter what.”

“This, I believe, is not an easy thing to say,” he said.

History, class, race and psychology get in the way.

But this kind of respect and honesty are essential, and they are the core of the second chapter — Love.

Here, in panels on the wall, Mokgosi invokes stories in Setswana, his mother tongue, belonging to a long oral tradition of story telling in Botswana. He has not translated them in print, he said, because much of them can only be performed in person. They are complex love short stories, with or without moral lessons, and they explore everything from physical attraction to wife and husband relationships.

“The official title of the Love chapter is Lerato,” he said. “However, I move back and forth depending on the exhibition setting. To begin with, I chose the title Lerato (translated, it means love) because something in the texture and life of this work cannot be translated; namely the fact that it is in my mother tongue, and also because culturally the word love cannot and does not occupy a similar position in the world. So the fact that Lerato names a strong affection for something or someone and it functions as a proper noun mostly designated to females is all important.”

Psychoanalysis as a theoretical tool played a part in this chapter, he said, as a way to investigate how people invest emotions into things. He turned to French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

“In Lacan on love, Bruce Fink charts the various ways in which psychoanalysis can be used to examine the force that binds subjects together,” he said.

Fink charts out some manifestations of love, including: natural love, attachment, friendship, agape, attraction, fixation on a human form, physical love, courtly love, romantic love, and falling in love.

“Friendship, for example, requires a specific kind of love, one in which you want nothing more than good to come towards one another,” he said, “that is, to wish each other well.”

In Greek, philia is used to describe this instance of being committed to a friend’s well-being without reservation, wanting the best for him or her.

In many ways, this is what democratic life requires from any citizen, he said — mainly, to take other people’s children in friendship – to wish them well and want the best for them while at the same time ensuring that your freedoms as an individual are recognized.

“Love, then, is the infinite source that compels us to always project ourselves as the subject of all narratives that we communicate about ourselves and ensures recognition. In a sense, I am saying that for citizens to recognize each other, there needs to be a general kind of love that binds them.”

This story has first run in the July issue of the Hill country Observer — my thanks to Fred Daley. In his Democratic Intuition project at the Williams College Museum of Art, Meleko Mokgosi (Botswana, b. 1981) Williams ’07, investigates contradictions in democracy.

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