Dineo Seshee Bopape, Lerole: Footnotes (the struggle of memory against forgetting) (detail), 2018, mixed media. Installation view.

Dineo Seshee Bopape, Lerole: Footnotes (the struggle of memory against forgetting) (detail), 2018, mixed media. Installation view.

Dineo Seshee Bopape

Spellbinding from the moment one first laid eyes on it, the sprawling installation Lerole: Footnotes (the struggle of memory against forgetting), 2018, was an expansive gesture of aesthetic autonomy and a richly orchestrated referential ensemble whose powerful physical presence intimated spiritual dimensions. The piece, which lent its title to this recent exhibition by the South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape, premiered at the Leopold Museum in Vienna in 2017, but the artist thoroughly reenvisions it each time it is displayed, responding to the specificity of each setting while drawing on the same group of interrelated elements.

For the materially and intellectually complex installation at Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Bopape spent about ten days reshaping the work in an intuitive process. Hundreds of uniformly sized adobe bricks were stacked in fields or blocks of varying dimensions that formed a sort of archipelago throughout the gallery. Some forms rose to waist height and resembled pedestals or altars, while others consisted of low rows or columns no more than a few bricks high. These archaic-looking structures were embellished with materials such as sand, soil, charcoal, and wood cinders. Metallic substances, including red and ocher oxide powders and gold leaf, complemented the earthen and wooden elements. Out of such ingredients, the artist forged a distinctive minimalist sensuality, an immersive aesthetic environment enhanced by olfactory and acoustic components as though in a ritual of animation. White sage and incense were burning on some of the bricks heaped with small piles of earth or charcoal and hand-coated with layers of ash or colorful oxide dust, and their scent spread through the gallery. From several record players—vintage portable models with matching speakers—unfurled an analog sound carpet of the rushing sound of water, a blend of the noises of oceans, rivers, and lakes throughout the African continent. From this din rose the call of a bird, the quetzal, a species native to Central America that has become a symbol of freedom: Legend has it that the animal commits suicide when captured.

Bolstered by this evocative allusion, the installation as a whole was an ephemeral monument to anti-colonial struggle. It also incorporated wooden panels with short texts and dates branded onto them commemorating colonial-era uprisings and acts of resistance against the European invasions of Africa over many centuries: With inscriptions such as BATTLE OF LUKALA (ANGOLA 1589) and UNTITLED BATTLE (SENEGAMBIA, CA. 1450–1462), the work included literal footnotes to the history of Africa between 1450 and 1921.

“It’s a general myth that resistance to colonialism existed only in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s,” Bopape said in a television interview, noting that earlier struggles need to be remembered and that those who participated in them should be commemorated. Her art seeks to give a voice to individuals who fought back, made a stand, rebelled, or refused to submit, yet have fallen into oblivion. A similar point was made in another register by the hundreds of small ceramic objects laid out on the larger blocks, some singly, others in swarm-like accumulations, all made from clay squeezed inside a fist and then fired—each piece an individual gesture of revolt. Created for the first version of Lerole from impressions of the clenched hands of African immigrants in Vienna, they have been included in all subsequent versions, extending Bopape’s unearthed history into the present.

Jens Asthoff

Translated from German by Gerritt Jackson.