Gallery MOMO, Cape Town
23.05 – 06.06.2019
With nationality and nationalism, comes baggage. In the places where our varying identities intersect, some chosen and some given, there is often friction. This friction seems particularly poignant for the artist, traditionally constructed as existing and working from a place beyond the mainstream, as an outside observer or as a world unto themselves. This has often been pointed out in regard to the nationalistic nature of the Venice Biennale, structured upon geographic borders. ‘The Botswana Pavilion: No Return’, an artist-run project show presented at Gallery MOMO, used this friction for its generative potential.
The group exhibition held within a single room within the gallery, included works by Thero Makepe, LegakwanaLeo Makgekgenene, Kim Karabo Makin and Thebe Phetogo. Like many countries within the Global South, Botswana has never presented a national pavilion at the Venice Biennale, an event banally referred to as the ‘art world Olympics’. In positioning the exhibition as the Botswana Pavilion, we are offered a complicated occasion of national pride. At the same time that it asserts the national identity of the exhibiting artists, it also begs the question: who decides what art can function as an ‘official representation’ of a country’s cultural landscape? Can art ever represent a national identity, is there such a thing as a national identity particularly after Globalisation, who decides what this identity is and which art should represent it?
These questions extend from this small, independently-organised exhibition in Cape Town, to the main event in Venice. The answer in Venice is often given by the government or publically-run cultural institutions. By nature, this propagates the ‘mainstream’, both cultural and economic, that art is supposedly meant to resist. Even where the chosen artists are seemingly radical, their counter-cultural nature is somewhat neutralised, if not in concept or appearance then by way of being sanctioned. And so, ‘The Botswana Pavilion: No Return’ begins on a bold note.
A common theme within the exhibition is a strong sense of medium and materiality. Sound, painting, assemblage sculpture, photography and photomontage are all present, with each artwork appearing to experiment with the expressive capabilities of their medium. The effect of Makepe’s photography book and sound work was particularly memorable. Titled Fly Machine/ Mogaka (2018), a book of enigmatic, aviation-related photographs is paired with an evocative soundscape. Combined, a film-like narrative is created, described in the exhibition text as “a memorial and tribute to Major Cliff Manyuni, a Botswana Defence Force BDF) pilot, who met his untimely death during a BDF Day rehearsal.” The work taps into memories and fears of flying to create an experience that is deceptively simple and surprisingly full.
Makgekgenene’s apocalyptic photomontages are so multi-layered and imbued with apparent symbolism that I left feeling as if I had missed out on a crucial ‘inside-joke’. They gave enough to feel like signifiers, but not much more. Part of what makes up any social grouping is a sense of there being an inside and an outside, and these works emphasised that fact through their cryptic imagery. What is apparent is that they represent a reaction to varying forms of institutional power. Set within a foreboding, horror movie atmosphere of glowing red skies, animals are dressed in the costumes of power, as wealthy politicians, police officers, and priests. The diamonds that underpin much of Botswana’s economy are scattered throughout. The effect is Animal Farm-esque (Animal Safari?). I am reminded of the ‘lizard people’ trope that exists within online conspiracies ― reptilian aliens disguised as humans in suits, puppet-mastering society’s oppression by the upper classes. The pessimistic, fearful feeling conveyed by Makgekgenene’s photomontage series is relevant in the contemporary moment with its political absurdities.
The fearful, paranoid feeling expressed in the works by Makgekgenene and Makepe are shared in a more abstract way in Thebe Phetogo’s paintings, created through a combination of oil, acrylic, shoe polish and collage on canvas. A disconcerting mash-up of geometric shapes and fluid lines, and biological, humanoid forms and machines set in murky primary and secondary colours, the paintings give off waves of impending doom. Kim Karabo Makin’s assemblage sculptures are less obviously connected to the fear present in the rest of the exhibition, but they do share its emphasis on materiality. Makin’s intricately woven pantyhose sculptures appear to comment on the ambiguities of race and immigration in works titled Racialism (2018) and _ _ _ _ _ bag (2018).
While the exhibition does not explicitly address what it means to be Motswana, the geographical context feels present throughout. In the contemporary moment, with its emphasis on relativity and subjectivities, it feels natural to provide the following answer: all identities which exist within a nation are representative of that nation’s identity. And while it may appear to be an arbitrary answer, it is an important one within the sociopolitical context of fear and uncertainty which can be felt throughout the exhibition, and which increasingly feels universal. On some level, national identities and rising nationalisms are themselves arbitrary by nature. The exhibition works to make nationhood feel subjective.