Meleko Mokgosi (b. 1981, Francistown, Botswana; lives in New York) wields the traditions of Western European painting to deliver sharp political critiques relating to the postcolonial condition. Combining a high degree of painterly skill with a poetic, open-ended semiotic approach and a penchant for deep archival research, the artist shines light on some of the complex socioeconomic dynamics that animate contemporary southern Africa. Mokgosi typically employs hyperrealistic figurative imagery on a large scale, incorporating mysterious, unidentified personages loosely linked to one another in implied storylines, sometimes spanning multiple timeframes within the same composition. Mokgosi’s work references murals and cinema as well as the conventional European artistic genre known as history painting. Associated primarily with the Neoclassical period of the 18th and 19th centuries, history paintings depict events drawn from history or mythology in ways that valorize contemporaneous political figures and forces. Whereas traditional history paintings feature lofty subjects—military battles or climactic scenes drawn from ancient legends—Mokgosi elevates everyday, anonymous persons and common objects, setting them against mundane domestic contexts while inserting references that establish an array of subtle yet powerful suggestive effects.
Pérez Art Museum Miami presents a large-scale, newly commissioned work by Mokgosi created for the museum’s distinctive 30-foot double-height project gallery. The project centers on the 1966 film Unsere Afrikareise (Our Trip to Africa) by the seminal filmmaker Peter Kubelka. Kubelka is widely recognized as one of the progenitors of the Structural film movement, which attempts to distill the cinematic experience to its purest material form. The film came about when Kubelka was invited by a wealthy Austrian family to record their safari trip through Africa. The strange, intense, grotesque work that resulted defies description. As the Europeans engage in various leisure activities (swimming, sunbathing, teasing their native attendants, and, of course, hunting), the action is intercut with fleeting glimpses of African passersby engaged in their daily labor (carrying water, pounding a mortar with a pestle). Kubelka punctuates these sequences with the repetitive, gruesome spectacle of the Austrians killing and skinning an elephant, a zebra, a lion, a giraffe, and other wild animals. In the words of film critic Catherine Russell, “The film was commissioned to be a mirror of sorts by the Austrian hunters whom Kubelka accompanied to Africa, but it becomes a fun-house mirror, horrifically distorting their image.” Kubelka compressed hours and hours of footage into a 13-minute barrage of imagery with no apparent through line, no sense of cause and effect, and no beginning, middle, or end, providing the spectator with no means of cognitive entry or exit. As in previous works, Kubelka disrupts the synchronization of sound and image, repeatedly employing the sound of cackling laughter at incongruous moments. At times, this laughter has the effect of belittling the African subjects, while at others it interacts with the scenes of violence against the animals to generate a cloud of sardonic irony.
The disconcerting dimensions of Unsere Africareise have often been cited, together with Kubelka’s stated disgust with his bourgeois patrons, to support the argument that he meant the work to serve as a critique of European colonialism and tourism in Africa. Mokgosi takes a more critical perspective, however, citing Kubelka’s insistence that his true intention was to “try and tear the emotions loose from the people, so that they would gain distance to their emotions, their feelings.” Taking Kubelka at his word, Mokgosi infuses the film with a new emotional force, reversing the desensitized tone that often accompanies modernist aesthetic treatments of non-Western subjects. As he has often done before, Mokgosi drives this critique through the heart of the Western art historical canon.