Monument Gallery, Grahamstown
30.06.2016 – 10.07.2016
Mohau Modisakeng’s ‘Lefa La Ntate’ ( translated as ‘my father’s inheritance’) at the 1820 Settler’s Monument is a deeply personalised show, heavy with symbolic imagery. The works make frequent use of the artist’s own body, exploring, at face value, the industrial machinery of the South African mining labour force. More poignantly in the work, however, is its articulation of the collective pain and suffering inflicted on a Black working class by continued colonialist and apartheid administration.
Horse blinkers are a recurring image in the work, worn by the artist in photographs as well as in his video installation. Typically used to limit the perspective of the working horse to looking straight ahead, the effect of peripheral understanding is kept dormant and the horses are more likely to remain focused on the task of their master (and less likely to veer off of their predestined path). Making frequent use of this evocative image, Modisakeng sets up a forum for the crucial dialogue between individualist perspective and systemic peripheral reality, looking specifically to issues of land, dispossession, and the position of Black men in the historically pervasive colonial situation of South Africa.
In this process of intensive personalised exploration around mining, industrialisation, and its systemic effect on Black men, however, the viewer does not necessarily come to grips with the gendered dimensions of colonialist South African history. While we might argue that the work is deeply personal, drawing on a justified subjectivity and truth, it certainly remains important to note that the codified version of ‘blackness’ in the contemporary South African art world continues its journey with little exploration of the (dis)inheritance of the Black mother. In this sense, the peripheral limitations of the horse blinkers perhaps begin to take on new meaning.
Upon entering the main installation, we are confronted by a long wooden table, taking up an uncomfortable amount of space in the small gallery. Coal spills from atop the table onto the gallery floor, and a musty smell hangs in the air. Upon this grand sculptural remnant of an evocative performance, there are carved markings. These decorative triangular carvings made during the performance by white-clad workers, are arranged in circular patterning, and upon closer inspection, resemble the markings used on our one hundred rand notes. On opposite walls are hung black and white backlit images, showing highly contrasted portraits of the artist against a pure white backdrop, wearing the horse blinkers, and blowing a thick smoke. Downstairs, a black and white four channel video emits a similar energy to these images, evoking sadness, anger and violence equally.
To limit the usage of black and white to obvious racialised division might be unfair- the work is incredibly rich in ambiguity, and the pervasiveness of a feeling of loss and mourning comes through as strongly as politically contextual elements. Of course, it would be ridiculous not to mention the somewhat disturbing play between our sickening colonialist history and its cruelty upon Black bodies, and the site of the exhibition within the Settler’s monument. Again, the symbolism of the carvings upon the table that refer to a thieved white wealth, and the recurring horse blinkers that have historically attempted to control the Black body – and reduce its agency – speak quite deeply to the relationship forced upon Black artists in an art world very clearly still controlled by white capital. The figure of authority in the performance begins to take on an eerie relationship,both as symbolic of these ideas, and contextually relevant to the overall structure and power dynamic of the site.
In addressing this relationship, the appearance of various objects throughout the show – for instance machetes, coal, and carving tools – evoke firstly the industry of the coloniser and his relationship to land and wealth, while at the same time evoking the weaponry of typically masculine revolutionary violence and Fanon’s decolonisation. At once Modisakeng’s long table seems to hark back to the 19th century Scramble for Africa, and its resulting (under) development, and to the Marikana Massacre of 2012, contrasting and combining acts of resistance and systemic violence. These ideas are continuously coupled with the emotive, and what feels like the intention of humanising the systemic, as a politic that centralises and pays respect to unavoidable suffering and hardship forced through historical dispossession.
The phenomenon of mining, and other exploitative labour projects in South Africa are of course complex and ongoing, tied not only to the formation of labour camps during apartheid, and dispossession of land but also to the new family structure forced upon Black people, with fatherhood and motherhood violently re-situated, and divided gendered work that played a tangible role in the formation of community.
In ‘Lefa La Ntate’, Modisakeng positions this so-called ‘history’ in the present, centralising destruction as a theme of the work, looking to identity, land, and position, as facets of Black existence that have been colonised, and attacked through pervasive colonial strategy.