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“‘Here,’ she said, ‘in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh.’”1
So begins a crucial scene in Toni Morrison’s potent novel Beloved, in which the matriarchal character Baby Suggs delivers a powerful sermon on the necessity of affirmations of self-love. Her words, at once subversive and deeply beautiful, quietly oppose the flagrantly intimate violence that colonial oppression bestows upon the body. These words are several of many referential framing devices present within Meleko Mokgosi’s Bread, Butter, & Power at the Fowler, an expansive exhibition of 21 of the artist’s large-scale paintings that form the most recent chapter in his ongoing series Democratic Intuition. The paintings, which depict subjects from the artist’s native Botswana and directly reference the narrative monumentality of European history painting, deftly interrogate the relationship between art history, postcolonial discourse, feminism, and black subjectivity.
Mokgosi opens the exhibition with more paratext: along with the framed, annotated photocopy of a page from Morrison’s book, there are similarly inscribed photocopies of Nkiru Nzegwu’s 1990 poem “Sisterhood,” and June Jordan’s 1978 “Poem for South African Women,” as well as two posters, with one declaring—next to reiterative images of a raised fist—“They Will Never Kill Us All.” A single shelf presents an array of the artist’s thoroughly trodden research books, spanning tomes of postcolonial theory, African history, and seminal novels chronicling the plights and triumphs of black narrators, including Morrison’s Beloved.
While collectively presented as ephemera—academic and literary marginalia in relation to the meticulously rendered paintings—these references read as footnotes designed to semantically reinforce the works’ deepest layers of theoretical and historical heft. That said, their strategic placement at the beginning of the exhibition infers a narrow pedagogic interpretation of the paintings themselves, hindering the work’s fluid potential to mine these themes without textual support. Nevertheless, despite didactic undertones, Mokgosi’s juxtaposition of image and text catalyzes a curious dialogue between the frame and the page.
The paintings (all 2018) comprise one discrete work, and are seamlessly adjoined on the walls as if to form several long, disjointed film strips. Although each depicts a unique composition, several individual paintings crest beyond the natural frame of the canvas and subtly invade the adjacent image plane. Images vacillate from a distinguished portrait of school-aged girls, a leafy market stand, a young woman in contemplative repose, to men and women in both humble and resplendent interiors, alternately dignified and forlorn. Laden with visual symbols and iconic figures—a portrait of Harriet Tubman, for example, is buttressed by a picture of Angela Davis, a raised fist, and a bust of Mary Seacole—a single image can point to multiple theoretical frameworks, from intersectional feminism to African-American history.
While this cinematic display tactic verges on visual inundation, it echoes Mokgosi’s handwritten notations in that it elevates the importance of the painting’s margins, which morph into compositional focal points. Here, unfinished brushstrokes—forming a patch of azure sky, or a crumpled bed sheet—disperse to reveal raw, unprimed canvas. In these liminal moments, the artist intentionally divulges his forfeiture of traditional white primer, pointedly negating the supposed neutrality of the white canvas. This action, alongside his dexterous use of hues such as raw umber and burnt sienna, imbues a rich luminescence into his depiction of black and brown skin—a gesture that immediately recalls Baby Suggs’ tender, corporeal celebration. Through emphasizing this tonal specificity, Mokgosi issues a critical corrective to the art historical canon by remonstrating whiteness as the representational default.
Functioning as a compositional pause or ellipses, three large canvases of text—one in English, and two in the Southern African language of Setswana—are dispersed throughout the exhibition’s cinematic installation. Hand-painted in a translucent wash of graphite and bleach, these semantic interludes directly thread back to the conceptual and linguistic snares metaphorically cast by the books and prints across the room. In one, permanently stained into the canvas with whitening bleach, Mokgosi transcribes—yet does not translate—a traditional oral proverb that, according to the artist, recounts a phantasmagoric fable. Another, in English and formatted as a formal academic footnote, asserts that democracy is inherently gendered—a written synthesis of Mokgosi’s research (and a thesis conceptualized within his paintings). These almost dueling languages serve a dual purpose: he immunizes one language from symbolic erasure, while employing the other, English—itself a linguistic vestige of colonialism in Southern Africa—to complicate the idealized vision of a political system touted by neo-colonial forces.
Mokgosi ultimately frames the act of painting as an instructive, restitutive, and restorative one—an act akin to language in its ability to craft, frame, and laud that which yearns for historical (and contemporaneous) representation. As such, the exhibition suggests that the texts footnote the paintings, while the paintings themselves—intimate tableaus that unearth poetic moments of individual agency against the backdrop of postcolonial discourse—append the texts. While Mokgosi’s inclusion of an academic index directly encourages cultivation of an intellectually literate viewership, his scholarly generosity verges on overshadowing the transformational language of his paintings themselves. If Baby Suggs’ lyrical sermon points to a radical reclaiming of personal agency—physically, spiritually, psychologically—amidst the violent throes of oppression, then Mokgosi’s painterly impulse echoes this through his attentive, indeed loving, approach to his subjects. This begs a final question: should painting—or should these (exquisitely crafted) paintings—necessitate such textual prerequisites?
This review was originally published in Carla issue 12.