The late 1980s and early 90s were flooded with exhibitions on African Art organised in the West; ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ in Paris in 1989, ‘Contemporary African Artists: Changing Tradition’ in Harlem in 1990 and ‘Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa’ in London in 1995 stand out among many others. Besides misguided notions about art created on the continent and equally misguided egos, the common thread in the exhibitions was organisers claim to finally be bringing African Art to the world, showcasing its brilliance and ability to stand up to Western standards of art. What the organisers failed to account for was their inherent biases and what author Teju Cole refers to as the White Saviour Industrial Complex – a system of thinking that is not predicated on justice but rather on having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.
Two exhibitions in particular; ‘“Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” (1984) and ‘Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life’ (1997) act as setting off points for Meleko Mokgosi’s latest exhibition at Stevenson Gallery, ‘Objects of Desire, Addendum.’ The exhibition functions as a postscript to the artist’s ongoing visual essay, ‘Democratic Intuition’ (2013-2019), and a closing remark to the initial exhibition ‘Objects of Desire’, which was shown in 2018 in the US.
‘Objects of Desire, Addendum’ brings together paintings punctuated by wall texts from the two exhibitions mentioned above (both held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) as well as handwritten annotations and commentary by the artist. We are presented with a particular collection of thoughts and counterthoughts from the curators of the shows at MoMA and Mokgosi’s engagement with the shows through research. Mokgosi questions the makings of history and sets up a platform to contest the organising logics of processes that give us what we consider the art historical. Of course, his insertions are subjective but I would like to offer that this be read as critically engaged subjectivity. Conceptual artist Mary Kelly (who Mokgosi trained under at UCLA) speaks of the idea of critically engaged subjectivity as that ‘where the spectator is pulled into an intimate space of reading where the narrative unfolds’, one which upends hierarchical arrangements of knowledge and allows for different forms of knowing.
The combination of text and image in this manner – the use of strong techniques of history painting with annotations foregrounded by research – results in a multilayering and creates a palimpsest that allows us to look critically through the veils of history. Mokgosi remains committed to the medium of narrative painting and continues to complicate it with a fine-drawn line. Images of Winnie Mandela are interspersed with articles of clothing (a red shirt, a church uniform) and images advertising hair products, all rendered with an intricate focus on colour, stroke and texture. While the images demonstrate the tension between history painting as the ‘highest form of academic painting’ and still life as the ‘lowest tradition’, the text reveals his thought process.
The ‘right to look’, as visual culture theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff explains it – is not merely about seeing. It begins at a personal level with the look into someone else’s eyes to express friendship, solidarity, or love. That look must be mutual, each inventing the other, or it fails. The African art object has been read, inspected and examined. It has been looked at steadily and intently but that gaze has not been mutual. By placing the institution under scrutiny, Mokgosi returns that gaze. Perhaps the gaze is still not mutual but at the very least, its perversions are laid bare.
It is interesting to note how the use of the term ‘modernism’ has been co-opted to imply the quality of thought, expression, or technique whose foundation is built upon principles of reason and logic, while at the same time invoking the idea that what is outside the closely confined definition of modernism remains static, unmoving and out of tune. ‘Modern’ suggests (or rather imposes) a value judgement; old vs new, good vs bad and although highly subjective, all of these judgements are presented to us as objective truth. In Addendum 10, Mokgosi circles the word ‘affinity’, a word used in the original wall text by the museum to suggest a natural (perhaps unexplainable) harmony between European modernist techniques and those found in ‘tribal art’. He notes ‘this concept tries to gloss over the violence and racism that travels with modernism and its artists.’ He notes further ‘the history of this discourse and its effects [modernism] are determined by race discourse and the colonial conquest of European nations and their idea of “progress”’ (Addendum 3). Upon closer scrutiny, the tenets on which modernism purports to be founded (rationality, objectivity and progress) collapse in on themselves.
To go back to Mirzoeff, he uses the analogy of the police directing passers-by away from an incident or scene of some kind. He writes, ‘[…] the police say to us “move on, there’s nothing to see here.” Only there is; we know it, and so do they. The opposite of the right to look is not censorship, then, but visuality, that authority to tell us to move on and that exclusive claim to be able to look.’ We can draw very close parallels between the police and the museum. The museum has sanctioned itself the authority to classify, assemble, present, interpret and translate the African art object. It does this by using carefully and intelligently considered language that presents itself as humanistic and evolved. In Addendum 5, the museum text reads ‘[…] geometrical patterns, along with scarification masks on African masks and figures, were absorbed by Picasso.’ Absorbed replaces stolen, plagiarised, copied and snatched. In Addendum 4, the museum text reads ‘ […] they praised tribal art for what they imagined to be its purer spirit.’ Purer spirit replaces exotic, incomprehensible, illogical, mystic and other. In Addendum 1, museum text reads ‘the most common misreading of tribal works interprets their sometimes rigid, frontal, symmetrical, and often awkward poses as examples of expressionist anxiety.’ Common replaces commanding and dominant and it further speaks to an inability to see the world as a complex web of intersecting, congruent and incongruent divergences and convergences with multiple centres. All of these texts reveal a lack of imagination and willingness to accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own. The police tell us there is nothing to see here, the museum tells us what to see and how to see it.