Meleko Mokgosi is a an academic artist: his first UK exhibition, held in late 2020 at the Gagosian in London, came with a two-page book list of 43 different titles, primarily focused around post-colonial feminist discourse. He comes across as inherently serious, and is quoted by The Guardian as saying “I never romanticise being an artist. I don’t do the whisky and cigarette at 3am.” Note the singular.
The canvases are on an epic scale, at 8 ft x 8 ft, and Mokgosi identifies as a ‘history painter’ in the Western tradition of epic painting that dominated during the 17th to 19th centuries (paintings which took as their subject matter improving subjects such as Bible stories, Greek mythology or historical scenes of battle). I wish it had felt safe enough covidwise to visit the exhibition in the autumn, but I had still sworn off tubes, trains and buses at the time. I have a book of reproductions from the show that was curated by the Fowler Museum at UCLA in Los Angeles in 2018, but obviously their scale can’t compete!
In the monumental size of his canvases, Mokgosi is giving prominence to a subject matter that has been entirely overlooked by the Western tradition, of course. The everyday lives of black Africans are here, then, perhaps made heroic, and given a significance grounded in history and non-white traditions. Two canvases show texts, so faint as to be obscure, telling folklore tales that circulated in the oral tradition, in Setswana, the principal language spoken besides English. English is the national language of education in Botswana, although there are 28 language in use – most of which are barred for use in education or the media. As a result, particularly in rural areas, many children are taught in a completely different language to that taught at home.
At the Fowler the canvases were exhibited as a frieze along three walls, and some of the canvases bleed into each other. Mokgosi claims influences such as Lucian Freud and Max Beckmann, and there is also a touch of early David Hockney in some of his hyper-realistic portraits, I felt. He uses as source material photographs taken by himself on return trips from the USA to his native Botswana, or taken by an assistant based there, as well as pictures sourced elsewhere.
As he told Ocula magazine, in building up skin tones Mokgosi uses only four colours (raw umber, burnt umber, raw sienna and burnt sienna), using the beige of the canvas as the lightest point, and dispensing with white paint entirely when creating highlights on black skin. This means a highly accurate and painstaking placement of paint is required from the outset: as demonstrated in the portrait of the moneyed, glossy-limbed young woman above. I wish I knew what she held in her hand, as she sits with her thoughts.
Mokgosi’s painting combines hyper-realist, almost photographic representations with text and sometimes more impressionistic background elements.
Botswana is generally regarded as a country that has avoided the post-colonial excesses of some other sub-Saharan African nations, where corruption and instability can be rampant. There is universal primary education, and relative transparency in governance. But inequalities remain: contrast the state school children pictured above, engaged in outdoor work, with the formally posed private school children pictured below. There is strength, solidarity and self-sufficiency perhaps, though, in the interlinked arms of the girls above, with their backs turned away from the gaze of the American or UK viewer.
Other aspects of southern African culture are foregrounded: below we see pictured the rise of macho nationalism among young (surely, here, barely adult?) men, the aspirations of workers living in one-room accommodation (note the ornamental ceramic dog, a motif that reappears in other paintings by Mokgosi, and the neatly arranged cuttings featuring idealised – often white – images of consumption and complacency) and the enduring gender disparities (the woman seated on the floor, the man in the chair). All this makes for a fascinating, multi-layered sequence of work.