19.08 – 13.10.2017
To enter ‘Fugitive’ at the Stevenson gallery in Joburg is to experience the crowded cartography of artist Moshekwa Langa’s colourful psyche. There’s a labyrinthine spirit affecting each piece on show, one in search of usable forms through which to revisit specific subject territories of the artist’s memories, where the simple act of recollection rings inadequate.
At the start, the show is a rich, life-affirming curation of abstracted paintings of layered patterns, collected collages and an installation of large calcified canvases.
More than the cliché that all art is self-portrait, Langa explores the poetic potentialities of the incomplete recollections we all encounter when we attempt to excavate the blank spaces in our memories. He points us to the pleasures and pitfalls encountered when we mine our past. In the end, we can never be sure whether we are forming fantasies, recollecting histories or inventing encounters out of the probabilities of our lives. This fugitive state that defines any act of personal or public process of making meaning is what gives Langa’s work its sinew.
The exhibition represents the first Joburg showing in almost a decade for an artist known as much for his world-wandering ways as he is for his wondrous work. Langa produced the work while living and working in Paris and Amsterdam.
The exhibition’s accompanying notes tell us it came out of his reflection on “on his past and in particular, the landscape of his home town of Bakenberg as it changed with the onset of platinum mining… [later] taking on a new life in Johannesburg, it becomes an articulation of the artist’s concerns with time, memory and the entanglement of context.”
The curatorial notes also declare that, “since the mid-1990s, Langa’s work has interrogated land and public and personal politics through the mapping of territory and cultural environments.”
The large installation sharply shored up notions of land as home. It is made up of grand soiled canvases hung from the ceiling to confront arriving gallery visitors like war banners. These large screens scream with the patina of the land; touched by the rusty blood colour of the leached laterite soil of the Limpopo region and its surrounding expanse. Bakenberg, the little town of Langa’s birth and upbringing is located in Limpopo, and is hence the first site of his earliest fugitive memories. This makes Limpopo into a kind of wellspring and genesis of all his psycho-political and subsequent creative geographies. Everything flows from there into an international career that has laboured and stumbled into effective escape and evasions of all kinds of reifying discursive tropes.
It is therefore fitting that this giant “land kissed” installation is the first grand pieces one encounters as they enter the gallery. Titled Drag Paintings, these grand canvases win by the sheer force of their size and the elegant simplicity of how they may have been made into art. It appears Langa worked by simply dragging the sheets in the red ground, or by simply and leaving them out in the open air until the sandy red clay soil had sufficiently stained them. He then retrieved and fixed their time acquired marks with a kind of vanishing paint. This has given them their lustre and soft glow. The artist could not have made a more grand and poetic punctuation on the ongoing national debate on the land question.
On the other hand, the collages and paintings on show carry and rousing riff on the elegant power of persistent of rhythm, repetition, and pattern in the process of making meaning.
The works titled, The Parents I, II and Passages I lead the set of collages on show. They comprise collections and assembled images of objects of material culture, people and other things in varying iterations. Clay pots, beaded bangles, a row of dancing girls, the teeth of a wooden afro-hair comb, old women dressed in ceremonious costume. It is possible to read in these layered collages and abstract oceanic paintings, the delirium of kaleidoscopic imagery often associated with hallucinatory dreams or mangled memories. Nothing is fully articulated, but merely suggested, only enough to keep the thinker/dreamer in a fugitive search for usable forms.