Meleko Mokgosi

Honor Fraser
2622 S. La Cienega Blvd.
April 19, 2014–May 31, 2014

View of “Pax Kaffraria,” 2014.

History painting, argued eighteenth-century academicians, was the noblest undertaking for any artist: especially if you want to glorify European conquest. In this incandescent debut—whose title, “Pax Kaffraria,” plays on a violent racial slur—Botswana-born and Brooklyn-based artist Meleko Mokgosi refashions the genre for new, postcolonial undertakings, all while insisting that the narratives it depicts can only be fragmentary. In three monumental canvases, Mokgosi mashes together past and present visions of southern Africa, often in strange and inarticulable concatenations. Fully Belly, 2013, shows women in contemporary white shift dresses near a traditional chieftain with leopard skin and shield, flanked by female guards wearing high heels and ersatz militaria. Ruse of Disavowal, 2014, features a kleptocrats in Western suits and blinged-out men in suits; elsewhere is a dead lion positioned next to two men with guns. The figures stand in fields of undifferentiated beige, like picture-book illustrations of unknown archetypes, but all their possible narratives bleed across the sutured canvases—not unlike in the panoramas of James Rosenquist, that earlier master of historical dislocation.

The political goal of these paintings is clear: to short-circuit the system of representations that undergirds the woefully enduring historical narratives that keep Africa outside the contemporary. But it’s an uphill struggle, not least because the Western conception of modern art itself so consistently worked against the idea of Africa, as Mokgosi demonstrates in Modern Art: The Root of African Savages II, 2014. The work reproduces museum wall texts—for Picasso, Stieglitz, and “traditional” African sculpture—ringed with the artist’s furious notations (EXOTICIZING, NEVER FULLY MODERN, BULLSHIT!!) reminding us not only of the endurance of primitivism, but of the racist assumptions built even into our contemporary, “global” art discourse.

Mokgosi is at his best, however, when his politics act at the nexus of form and content, as in three masterful charcoal drawings of packs of dogs, each a humble breed unique to southern Africa. One thinks of another figure of the region, the novelist J. M. Coetzee, for whom dogs serve as the essential third term in the fraught negotiation between European history and the African continent. The animals are silent witnesses to colonization, means of protection, victims of elemental human cruelty. Yet they also attest to the endurance of love and loyalty, even in a world as history-scarred as ours.

— Jason Farago