Walk inside “Scripto-visual”, Meleko Mokgosithe spectacular exhibition of paintings and prints at the stream gallery in Stowe, the viewer encounters an 8-foot-tall enlargement of a stunning political poem by Gladys Thomas. “You who remade us / your mold will break / and tomorrow you will fall!” Mokgosi borrows the title of his work from Karl Marx: “The social revolution of our time cannot draw its poetry from the past but only from the poetry of the future”.
In the margins and between the lines, Mokgosi – Botswana-born, now Brooklyn-based – has handwritten commentary that provides crucial context. The poem condemns the Group Areas Act of 1950, by which the apartheid government of South Africa removed non-white people from their homes and relocated them to arid areas.
This huge, austere piece of text forces Western viewers to change their default settings and “figure out how to empathize and watch something from a position that isn’t theirs,” as the artist at New York Times in 2019. That is to say, stop interpreting the revolutionary struggle evoked by the poem through the prism of the white Europeans of a few centuries ago, and rather see it through the prism of South Africans living under apartheid decades ago.
To make this point visually clear, a small warning sign, featuring the face of a German Shepherd, hangs like a surveillance camera in the upper right corner of the poem. “ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK,” it read.
Mokgosi, associate professor at Yale University, discusses notions of colonialism, democracy and liberation throughout African history. In doing so, he draws deeply on his study of critical theory, philosophy, psychoanalysis and pop culture. Her work confronts the complex politics of representation, insisting that the dominant Eurocentric narratives be “completed”, as the gallery guide delicately puts it.
The “Scripto-visual” pieces include larger figurative oil paintings, ghostly pigments and photo transfers, charcoal drawings and mounted texts, smaller panels and posters. The artist’s choice of subjects varies considerably, from almost photorealistic portraits to deaf and ethereal transfers.
“My interest in representation is linked to power because it is undeniable that there is a direct correlation between power and the production and dissemination of representation,” writes Mokgosi in his artist statement.
To provide this representation, he exclusively uses texts from works by African and African-American authors. Sometimes these texts are mounted separately on the periphery of a painting to provide a non-European frame of reference; elsewhere, the text is the room, with the words enlarged to the size of an entire wall. In other works, Mokgosi includes fascinating handwritten annotations and commentary in the margins.
The works in the main gallery consist mainly of large transfers of pigments and photos on canvas and linen. Mokgosi renders these 8-foot-tall scenes in a muted palette of white, gray, black, and beige, with plenty of negative space. This contrasts nicely with a diptych of large untitled charcoal drawings on paper, which depict night scenes with barely an inch of paper across the charcoal.
Upon entering the west gallery, the viewer is first treated by Mokgosi’s breathtaking “Objects of Desire 6”. Especially compared to the less figurative and darker-toned works of the adjacent gallery, this lush oil portrait of a woman kneeling in the grass seems like a luminous portal to another, brighter dimension.
The woman’s expression is also striking: hypnotic and impenetrable. With her hands neatly folded over her striped skirt, she gazes calmly and confidently at the viewer – or perhaps just above the viewer’s head, like someone agreeing to be photographed by a stranger.
Directly to the right of this portrait are several pages of scanned typed text. This is one of the most rewarding readings in the exhibition, especially for those who have studied art history or spent a lot of time in museums. The pages are period museum wall labels describing Picasso as an innovative genius who discovered all “primitive”, “magical” African art that would provide crucial inspiration to Cubism and the art movements to follow.
If Mokgosi had simply scanned and reproduced these labels and installed them alongside his own virtuoso painting – almost winking at the viewer – that alone would be a devastatingly effective juxtaposition. Instead, he goes the extra mile and annotates them.
The resulting notes are detailed, generous and at times hilarious, oscillating between academic rigor (“This discourse around the idea of epiphany and genius is important to manage”) and fair withdrawal (“How this” collection “has exactly acquired? “” This wall tag is meaningless, and conceptually and historically shallow “).
Another standout piece is “Woman Sitting,” a huge 72 x 108 inch charcoal drawing. Depicting what appears to be a young white boy sitting in a black woman’s lap, the design appears intentionally unfinished: large areas of negative space are left untouched, the geometric beginnings of other chairs are just spectral lines. A vaguely threatening mood haunts this image. Next to the woman and boy, a large German Shepherd sits faithfully, and a black toddler appears to be playing with a puppy in another room.
The opposite wall is hung with frameless political posters that deliver an explicitly anti-colonial energy. “The people will rule! we read. A 12 x 18 inch map of Africa is pasted with straight faces and the words “YOU SHOULD BE SO LUCKY, ALL WE WANT IS JUSTICE, NOT VENGEANCE”.
Text and image have long been combined to enlighten, persuade, teach, illustrate and organize. For a culture obsessed with social media and inundated with ironic pop culture memes, the posters included by Mokgosi offer the welcome and necessary antidote to a serious message.
German theater artist and poet Bertolt Brecht once said: “Art is not a mirror set up against reality, but a hammer with which to shape it. Mokgosi’s “Scripto-visual” shows us that art can be both at the same time.