cape reviews


Mohau Modisakeng at Brundyn

By Amie Soudien
29 May - 12 July. 0 Comment(s)
Untitled (Fence)

Mohau Modisakeng
Untitled (Fence), 2014. Mild steel, wood 320 x Ø480 cm.

While Mohau Modisakeng’s work on his first solo exhibition at Brundyn+, ‘Ditaola’, does not represent a demarcated era, Untitled (Rickshaw) as an object draws one into the beginnings of European presence in the Cape – and indeed, the country. The horseless rickshaw offers an initial context for the exhibition, as this period of contact would radically change the cultural figuration of the region, permanently and physically altering the landscape, the people in it, and the ways in which cultural production operates in various spheres.

It is apt then, that this visual concoction of old-world colonial South Africa and ‘black African subjects’ should take place in Cape Town, the ‘Mother City’ - the starting point of the country’s European rule, and the current site of much physical displacement and civil discontent. Omnipresent within ‘Ditaola’ is the irony of the physical toil of those who contributed to the creation of ‘Victorian leisure’, the erasure of their narrative within ‘official’ history, and its apparent absence in the psyche of ‘Whiteness’. Jubilant grand narratives of wartime and war heroes are favoured over the experiences of people and of individuals, many of whom who will be forgotten. ‘Ditaola’ is a stark reflection of these inequalities, these ‘complications’, and how they endure in the present. 

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Untitled (Rickshaw)

Mohau Modisakeng
Untitled (Rickshaw)
Mixed media


The position of ‘Blackness’ is at the centre of the exhibition – and the position's conflict with societal and institutional structures infuses every piece. This site of conflict, the black body, is represented in its enforced limitations, particularly apparent in the evocation of the institutional forms of this limitation. Allusions to bondage and physical restriction are especially clear in Modisakeng's use of galvanized steel, mahogany and weathered timber. Thinly veiled in its decorative guise, the embellished steel is designed for two purposes: to protect those within it whilst keeping others out. The combined works Untitled (Bust 4) and Untitled (Umbrella) are particularly representative of the duality of decoration and imminent violence. The steel crafted umbrella hangs over the truncated bust of a woman; small, stunted horns emerge from her head and her breasts are left bare. Sharp, impaling barbs complete the umbrella, making it appear more like a trap than a means of shelter. 

The implied violence in these encasings, their spikes and spires, are in themselves suggestive of weapons, but double up as symbols of sophistication and wealth - a kind of ostentation necessary to evoke the colonial setting. Not restricted to the era of its origin, the apparent need for protection amidst the (black) intruder persists. The ‘kraal’ of steel in Untitled (Fence) asserts a prestigious authority and exclusivity found enclosing parliament, a cathedral, a private school or a home in Bishopscourt or Sandton. The steel’s intricate forms speak of an enduring privilege present in nearly all of South Africa’s major institutions, and its visible, physical presence in the everyday.

Much like the artist Fred Wilson’s rearrangement of objects in his 1992 exhibition 'Mining the Museum' at the Maryland Historical Society Museum (with ornate silver vessels placed alongside slave shackles), in Untitled (Chair) and Untitled (Table) Modisakeng articulates symbols of the quintessential European household by distorting their context with another more sinister one. These objects are entirely disrupted by sjamboks, through which the presence of the ‘African’ cannot be denied nor ignored. 

Ditaola XIV

Mohau Modisakeng
Ditaola XIV
Inkjet print on Epson UltraSmooth
150 x 200 cm


But it is Modisakeng’s reiterations of monuments in Untitled (Bust 1-4) that are more directly suggestive of the colonial and apartheid means of expression in South Africa. These ‘new monuments’ lack the sympathetic nationalism, and instead peel back the veneer of respectability present in colonial public symbols. To evoke the black body, Modisakeng uses the truncated torso of mannequins, and the inclusion of people in his video works. Untitled (Bust 2) reflects the artist’s self-portrait, figured in darkened bronze with the horns of a ram. Eyes gently closed, Modisakeng takes on the image of ‘Europe’s African’ – passive, mythical and animalistic. Atop the wooden plinth, his form serves as a trophy, and his dismemberment is representative of the conquered body. Untitled (Bust 3) sees the nude body of a woman, shown from the hips up, her face obscured by blinkers usually worn by horses. She wears a headdress of heavy spikes and a collar of cast bubble wrap. The power of control – in being controlled, and asserting it – is a dominant theme. The shifting roles of the ‘black subject’ are encoded here, first as a means to labour, and later, as pawns in political power. 

Continuing some of these themes, the photographic series Ditaola I – XVI depicts the artist preened for battle in both a traditional and contemporary sense. The time-lapse element of the images – and the powdered white dove – shows an interesting visual development from Modisakeng’s Qatha series of 2011, and his Frame series from 2012. The use of his own image lends specificity to the black African subject described by Modisakeng, whilst speaking to and against the monolithic black African subject so frequently portrayed on the news and in popular culture. One could argue that these reiterated representations of the black subject further subjugate and repress agency. However, in inserting his own image into his work, Modisakeng complicates hegemonic notions of representation, and confronts generalized uncritical representations of the ‘black subject’. It is Modisakeng’s very personal introspection that brings about the work’s significance, and the concurrent inner struggles of many other young black South Africans. 

It is not often that contemporary sculptural work is able to visually reflect the historical weight of the past in the present. The sheer volume of the work on ‘Ditaola’ does do justice to the relevance of the exhibition’s themes, and is indicative of Modisakeng’s growing sculptural confidence. Concept and object frankly complement the other; his use of visual forms is deeply layered, but they are never out of reach. Overall, ‘Ditaola’ is an impressive solo exhibition, and an expansive foray into the subject of the frameworks of authority and the ways in which they continue to affect formulations of the self.