Guns & Rain
18.03 - 05.04.2021
The following is a collaboratively edited transcript of a conversation between Thebe Phetogo and Thulile Gamedze that took place on the 10th of March 2021 in Parkhurst, Johannesburg, at around 13:00.
Thulile Gamedze: One thing that I was thinking about when I was looking at your artworks just before, was Westworld.
Thebe Phetogo: Oh yeah, I was a big fan.
TG: Me too. Could you say why a Westworld fan would also be a fan of your artworks?
TP: I think so. There were definitely some things that, when I was watching it, I was like, “ah – I want that for my work”. I think the links were most apparent back when I was more focused on ‘worldbuilding’ as a tack. It was stuff like when they test for fidelity in the hosts… The idea of ‘proof of concept’ – an ongoing, doing-as-you-go, that peek behind-the-scenes as the actual grand narrative keeps proceeding… you’re kinda testing, fixing, adjusting as you go, all within a controlled environment.
TG: That draft idea is really interesting. That the hosts become composed of the repair and problem-solving and ‘wiping’ processes they undergo, which go wrong in many ways… They fix the bugs, change the storylines, and then put them back into the landscape for a new start, but it’s a pretence at the return to origin, because in actual fact there’s this deep repression of memory – as code – that enters with the hosts into the controlled landscapes…
TP: That controlled environment for me back then was the idea of postcolonial Botswana. Taking it as a draft, a living document – something like that. I was thinking about the founding myths of Botswana – some of it wasn’t stuff I believed, or stuff I hadn’t cared to interrogate. My painting project has been really useful in confronting my own assumptions, like “this is true, this is history”. Rethinking these things was interesting. That project was called ‘BOGASATSWANA: Rebuilding the Boat while Sailing’. That’s really where the Westworld thing was probably the strongest.
TG: One part of the work in your new show ‘Ko ga Lowe’ is portraiture: the composites and the grids with all the faces?
TP: Yeah, there’s different touchpoints for those. That format of grid is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, from selecting a character in a video game, or the posters with the various haircuts at a barbershop… and much more recently, a Zoom screen.
TG: It also reminds me of once when I had to help with a police sketch of someone who had mugged me. The policeman came to my house and we were sitting at the table in my flat, and he had this folder full of templates to construct the picture of the mugger – hair, facial hair, eyes, noses, mouths, face shapes… We started with hair, but the options in the folder were all based on sort of 1970s white european possibilities, so there were not any black hairstyles or black hair textures – completely at odds with how criminality is profiled. It was just these grids and grids of old school white hairstyles, and pages of different white criminal styles…. Kind of funny.
TP: That police portrait grid thing – it’s called a ‘rogues’ gallery’. And that’s actually my next show, what I’m working on during my residency at The Bag Factory. There’s a work called Prelude to Rogues’ Gallery in my current solo exhibition.
TG: This seems like those clues they bury in video games or Disney movies – easter eggs! You put easter eggs in your shows?
TP: I think so, actually. But it might not be a super conscious thing when I do.
TG: Do you play video games?
TP: Not really. I read a lot of comics growing up though. I don’t play video games, I’m not that techy, I’m not that sciencey, so I just sort of take the stuff that’s interesting to me from these different fields and use them in the most pop way I can.
TG: You take up the physics notion of a ‘blackbody’ in your work…
“A black body or blackbody is an idealized physical body that absorbs all incident electromagnetic radiation, regardless of frequency or angle of incidence. The name “black body” is given because it absorbs radiation in all frequencies, not because it only absorbs: a black body can emit black-body radiation.”1Wikipedia, Black body.
TP: It was just this definition that originally struck me – the title, definition, and only a little bit of the ‘actual’ thing. I really bastardised the concept and then retrofit it into something that I could paint with, because I was looking for approaches, or reasons to paint the figure at the time – I had no reason to just paint a person or a landscape. I was looking for a way to be able to enter painting…
TG: I appreciate the idea that no object fulfills the ideal of a blackbody in real life but that lots of things, like stars, “behave approximately like blackbodies.”2John A Dutton e-Education Institute, Blackbody Radiation, available here. I can easily see that this would be interesting from a/our bad theory perspectives… In physics, becoming a blackbody is a hyper-physical process and is about how much heat there is, how much radiation something can swallow – this is a ‘real’, almost fleshy process. Whereas the process of becoming racialised, becoming black, is this motion away from flesh, away from undifferentiated humanity, and towards a construct or concept. A ‘blackbody’ becoming ‘black body’ would be a disembodiment process. What does it mean to visualise this transformation? And in your work, what is the base-body – the first green body that is the one becoming ‘black’?
TP: Initially, it was that kind of one-to-one relationship with the blackbody concept, but along the way it has become looser, and I think that’s a good thing probably. I’ve had different ideas about how to define this thing but I’ve just decided to do all of them at the same time. A recurring thing is the possibility of the base or template figure jumping off from the green screen, sort of like a performer. One way to read this is through a theatre lens, with me in some sort of stage designer or make-up artist-type role, where I just put blackness on these figures. So that is one of the things, and it also relates to minstrelsy and the ‘concert party’ thing…
TG: The concert party is a Ghanain tradition of blackface performance-
TP: My initial interest in minstrelsy was never about privileging a white gaze, as ridiculous as that might sound. Although I wrote in my thesis about blackface in the ‘classic’ sense, finding out about concert party and the history of black vaudeville performers – blackface performers – in America, just clicked with something I was trying to do… Layering an identity or the representation of an identity. So the green figures are the base layer and then you put on this different timbre of blackness.
TG: A strange thing, black blackface – to appropriate your own identity on top of your identity?
TP: Initially I wanted to use this context of blackface as a base and then to develop it from there, so making my adoption of it explicit at first and then the approach would develop. I figured that the logical conclusion of this way of working might lead to an end point that didn’t resemble the original thing. But the green screen thing – it seems different to use that as a base, rather than something like the history of blackface, which is a real life thing. But in a way, they are both systems of representation to me for some reason…
TG: I suppose the green screen is an open-ended system, and by thinking about black face as a representation form beyond white gazing, you’re opening that system up as well. If I think like you, then it’s systems on top of systems. The green screen backgrounds have the seeming effect of making it possible to lift the images out of their scenes, as if you could move them onto other surfaces.
TP: I am trying to get at a figure that’s specific to the painting, or specific to the painted world. Beyond the outside references in my works, you always have to reconcile with the figure in the painting, with that as its place, influenced or informed by other things, but ultimately as a thing of pigment on surface.
TG: You are trying to avoid your figures being swallowed by a single piece of flat ‘content’?
TP: Yeah, the main idea was for a different read of the blackbody in painting.
TG: Okay, so you’re interacting with different methods of producing blackness, rather than one static, legible meaning. Even when we are seeing blackface, for instance, we’re having to understand it as a flexible index, related to the history of concert parties, and also against the shifty backdrop of the green screen, where nothing is yet resolved?
TP: Yes, even just the possibility of something different…
TG: In your paintings, your land is almost always drawn in contour, with these colourful layers. You can always see into or inside the land. I think it’s glorious. Is this a specific reference, or has it just become an invented aesthetic symbol for your land depictions?
TP: It is a reference to graphs and infographics. Just putting the colour into it, to kind of be informational, but without knowing what the information is or without there actually being information. With the idea of the informational – do you know ‘the rainbow scale’?
TG: I think so.
TP: Apparently it doesn’t intrinsically mean anything for its intended purposes – it’s used for different things across various fields of science. But the people who use it say it means nothing – it’s a bad system and it doesn’t accurately relay what it’s supposed to relay. People have tried to come up with other kinds of systems for this kind of infographic type.
TG: It makes it seem like perhaps colours would refer to different amounts of temperature or something?
TP: Yes exactly, but apparently it’s a kind of false and unreliable narrator. I picked up on that faulty system, which I liked.
TG: We were looking at your ‘Ko ga Lowe’ paintings together, and you said that the first one you made for the show was the figure with a baby figure inside it. And I think the baby figure looks white.
TP: Looks white? How? You mean the pinkness?
TG: Yes. This struck me in a funny way. Tell me about that…
TP: (Laughs) I was going for part of that rainbow scale, and I don’t think there’s many oranges or yellows in it, so I guess it could look white.
TG: It was also interesting to me, beyond the pinkness, that the baby wasn’t green – the base?
TP: That relates to the bastardisation of the concept that the physics blackbody serves, maybe as one of the ‘origins’. With the rainbow-scale baby, it could be showing a kind of absorption of radiation, the trauma or force that makes the figures go through these phases, from green, to that thermal quality, to blackness. And the title A blackbody Begets a blackbody Begets a blackbody, cites three blackbodies, but you only see two in the painting, so then who is the third one? Either me – am I the blackbody, because I am the person who made it? Or is it the person looking? I think that’s when I wanted to become an unreliable narrator with this whole ‘origin’ concept, so I made that as a potential origin, and then some other ideas as other potential origins.
TG: There is a painting showing a figure with a doek sitting in a cave – is that the Lowe cave? In reading on these sites, I also came across the name Matsieng.
TP: Yes. It’s confusing because there is a site in Botswana that has become known as the ‘footprint of Matsieng’ – it’s a tourist site now. You can see a rock formation that kind of looks like a footprint, and there’s actual animal prints around it, so it was supposed to be where the first man emerged from. But technically that is the site of the cave of Lowe, it’s just become popularly known as ‘Matsieng’s footprint’.
TG: In another of the cave images that’s titled Go tswa ko ga Lowe, there are teeth, which re-frame the whole composition of this cave of origin as being basically inside someone’s throat…
TP: I think it was just a simple thing of the mouth of a cave, so I’d have teeth there… I guess also, if I’ll be frank, it’s a remnant from when I was trying to invent some symbols back in my master’s work – the tooth was one of them.
TG: Would you say you’re addicted to painting?
TP: Probably; unfortunately or fortunately. It’s just something I decided, like ‘oh, that’s my thing’ – I started painting in Botswana. I’d been drawing since childhood but at the school I went to, there wasn’t really painting; there was drawing, or collage, or simple things – no sculpture or photography or stuff like that. I really latched on to this idea later, while I was in undergrad. I was doing media studies-
TG: Media studies! So that’s where all this comes from?
TP: Yeah, I did Media Studies and a minor in English Lit, so Media Studies was about focusing on journalism, because for a long time I wanted to be a writer. It was first the art thing, then the writing thing, then back to the art thing – specifically painting – which no one really guided me to. I have no real reason to be interested in this, I just am. This media background may be why I’m interested in these sort of lineage-type things… I’m not trained in art – I just observed and picked it up, as a Motswana guy from this outsider position, but everything is wide open to do what I want… The things that I make are often informed by this position.
TG: I resonate with this wide openness. I loved reading your thesis. I was thinking about how artists’ writing in the academic context is treated as a footnote to the ‘art’, as opposed to something that is interchangeable or in some sort of circular union with it. But reading can open work in a different way – you can really acknowledge it as part of a whole universe…
TP: Yeah. Like you’re saying, the idea of work having a world or worlds around it that inform its making – I think I may be more interested in that, than in making work ‘about’ stuff. This makes the “tell me about your work” question a nightmare for me, and goes against the convention that if you can’t sum up your ideas simply, you don’t understand them well enough – or they’re bad. But honestly, the idea that my practice is possibly a ‘bad draft’ excites me way more than it discourages me.
Images courtesy the artist and Guns & Rain