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LOS ANGELES — In Meleko Mokgosi’s paintings of contemporary life in the south African nation of Botswana, he suggests that the promises of postcolonial democracy may be unevenly distributed or realized. The works are the latest chapter of Mokgosi’s ongoing Democratic Intuition project, in which he invites viewers to consider how democratic ideals can be undermined or complicated by the realities of the present. Currently, they are on view in Bread, Butter, and Power at the Fowler Museum.
Combining elements of social realism, history painting, and the artist’s own scholarship, the installation can sometimes feel pedantic. Hanging by a bookshelf lined with the artist’s scholarly and literary influences, one panel reproduces (in painting) part of an academic essay about the semiotics of gender (complete with footnotes) as if to prescribe an entry into the artist’s choice of images and references. But even with the essay, the paintings remain open-ended and enigmatic.
The 21 panels circling the museum gallery resemble a storyboard of private and public moments gathered from the artist’s observations and research, although they eschew tidy narratives about the way things are or how people live. The paintings progress in medias res, throwing the viewer into scenes in which people are deep in thought or overcome with emotion. In one panel, a young woman (ostensibly affluent based on her furnishings) sits in quiet contemplation of a piece of paper (perhaps a letter?) she holds in her right hand. She could be processing either good or bad news and her thoughtful expression could erupt into pleasure or disquiet in seconds.
In another panel, a man sits in bed, regarding something in the distance. His gaze is not directed at the television (turned on to what looks like religious programming), but instead just past it. The man’s dog, a ghostly apparition of black and white, also curiously looks on at whatever is outside of the frame. Another bedroom interior features a man in work clothes lying in bed as he shields his eyes from daylight. The white, hard hat that sits at the foot of the bed suggests he works in heavy industry; his resting pose gives a sense of the exhaustion of performing that labor. The walls are white and bare with no decorations to furnish a sense of home or individuality.
Also in a separate panel, an older woman dressed in black leather sits at the corner of her bed, staring warily into a vanity mirror. The expression reflected in the mirror could be one of fatigue or distress. It’s unclear whether she’s pondering her self-image or simply staring beyond her reflection as she considers something else. Tucked underneath the bed sheets and propped up against a pillow is a doll with white skin and blonde hair, its blank eyes seemingly directed at the woman in leather.
These panels invite the viewer to consider the inner lives of their human subjects. We can identify explicit markers of social and economic status like furniture, clothing, and other personal effects, but the thoughts and feelings of people are not as obviously determined by their immediate setting. This gives the subjects of these paintings a degree of agency or personal narrative that is not overdetermined by their class, race, and gender.
Other panels represent more public or explicit expressions of power and authority. Resembling the iconic image of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton sitting on a throne with rifle and spear in each hand, a young man wearing sunglasses and a beret sits cross-legged on a rattan chair. Flanked on each side, however, are two sexualized men, shirtless and muscular, with portraits of a military leader and Jesus Christ hanging on the wall behind them. The panel pays tribute to the iconography of the Black Panthers, but is executed with symbols of nationalism and religion that complicate the politics of those being represented. Just to the left of this panel is another scene depicting what looks like a group of retired servicemen and women attending a memorial ceremony, possibly for the dignitary whose bust stands solemnly on a tall, black column. These images, in contrast to the aforementioned domestic scenes, are posed and public-facing. They contain official markers of state power and nationalist pride, and project the dignity and authority of those present in the frame.
Despite the realism of these images, Mokgosi is not just concerned with verisimilitude or documentation. The artist sometimes paints backgrounds in abstract or unfinished strokes, while his choice of imagery often ventures into the realm of the surreal. The ghostly dog in a previous scene surfaces again in another panel, this time in a still-life painting with a bowl of fruit, wall posters, and other accessories of domestic life. In another interior scene, a naked woman, with jet-black skin and exaggerated racialized features, stands statuesque atop a plinth. A similar figure, albeit with less exaggerated features, reappears in a successive still life in which she lies crumpled and defeated on the floor, her right arm broken off like that of a statue. On the wall above her, a collage of newspaper and magazine clippings advertise the trappings of success in modern life: physical health, nuclear families, and material wealth.
Meleko Mokgosi’s project is in some ways a counterpoint to the work of another painter from the African diaspora, Toyin Ojih Odutola. Her paintings, as Seph Rodney writes in his review of her recent show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, represent an iteration of black excellence and beauty that is founded upon wealth and status, the self-image of the aristocracy. While Ojih Odutola’s work presents a vision unmoored from or unburdened by history, Mokgosi’s rendition of contemporary Botswana feels unsettled by the colonial past and the nationalist present.
Meleko Mokgosi: Bread, Butter, and Power continues at the Fowler Museum (308 Charles E. Young Drive North, Los Angeles) through July 1.