Meleko Mokgosi’s solo show “Bread, Butter and Power,” on view at the Smart Museum of Art, is an exhibition of twenty-one large-scale paintings focusing on democracy in the context of contemporary, southern Africa. As part of an eight-chapter project, “Democratic Intuition,” created between 2013 and 2019, the expansive series reveals the vestiges of colonialism still present, the historical line of democratic institutions and its practices, and how these structures manifest and condition the everyday of its subjects.
In mainstream U.S. culture, we are experiencing in real time a fraying relationship between ourselves and an ideal image of democracy. That image pictured a space where participation in democratic culture and practices reciprocally provided security in the form of a good life, fair justice and equality. The reality of our lived experiences, particularly for minorities, instead reveals our continuous adjustment to shifting socioeconomic conditions. By way of a widening wealth gap rooted in discriminatory policies and systemic racism enabling injustices, marginalized communities are maintained to be invisible and vulnerable. In place of fading democratic institutions, the creation of local, grassroots support systems emerge because of our remediations and adaptations.
Mokgosi grew up in Botswana, a country promoted in the years following its 1966 independence from Great Britain as the model of stability and democracy in Africa: diamond-rich yet corruption-free, sound economic growth, regular and fair elections, and a free and vigorous press: A success story circulated within and through institutions in Botswana and abroad, as well as informally through popular, visual culture.
But when personal histories and the truth claims of its subjects are placed in proximity to those established narratives, reputation and reality come into conflict. Mokgosi’s artistic practice is steeped in theoretical research, but he works to bring democracy’s abstracted image to the ground of lived experience through the representation of its people and their voice. Each chapter is sourced from field research in Botswana.
“There is a respect that [Mokgosi] pays to the individual in the way that he represents them,” says Erica Jones, associate curator of African Art at the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles. Jones curated the first showing of “Bread, Butter and Power,” presented at the Fowler in early 2018.
As he is based in the United States, it is not feasible for Mokgosi to return to Botswana and interview the country’s residents.
“He has research assistants in Botswana who interview people about democracy and his assistants also take photographs as part of the process. They are locally based, and he uses the photographs to faithfully reproduce people and, in some cases, their homes,” Jones says. “These are real people in Botswana who are directly impacted by the issues, the themes, the topics that he is addressing in the body.”
While each chapter of “Democratic Intuition” works to reveal the complex entanglement between subjecthood, representation and sociopolitical systems, the paintings of “Bread, Butter and Power” focus on gendered divisions of labor and a feminism specific to southern Africa. Mokgosi’s process is meticulous and informed heavily by theory. Months of research and storyboarding produce works pre-planned to the detail of which brush will effect which stroke. What results are portraits rendered slightly larger than life, holding not only the subjects, the meaning of their facial expressions and posture, but significant details of their interiors.
In recent years, the Smart Museum has sought to broaden and diversify the works it shares to reframe traditional art-historical narrative to include untold and overlooked stories. Although “Bread, Butter and Power” shares experiences particular to southern Africa, for Jennifer Carty, associate curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Smart Museum and receiving curator for the exhibition, the show is a moment for visitors to contemplate their own relationships to democracy and gender in daily life.
“What’s powerful about Meleko’s work is this rich layering of representation that may not reveal immediate recognition to an audience unfamiliar with the context of southern Africa, but the work leaves entry points,” Carty says. “By deploying the language of history painting and narrative strategies, the artist exposes affinities in relation to democracy, gender and historical representation.”
As a way to look beyond the meta-narratives of colonialism and nationalism, the twenty-one large panels are grouped and positioned side-to-side, formally organized like a film strip. The subjects become actors and, through Mokgosi, they speak their realities. In one set, the scene begins with school children performing manual labor in their uniforms, presumably in the school courtyard. As a show centered on gender, it complicates that theme through its intersectional engagement with questions concerning class and education.
Foundational to feminism is education, both in terms of who has access and what is taught. Mokgosi highlights state educational priorities for children and young women in Botswana where manual labor is privileged over academic pursuits. A country could have an image that upholds democratic values and organization of law. But if the law governs a society never equally trained in what Indian scholar and feminist critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a great influence to Mokgosi, calls the “intuition of democracy”—that is, to have the tools to question their world and its lines of power—then could that country claim to be democratic?
Jumping forward in the grouping, the set cuts to an interior home where public and intimate spheres converge. A television showing a Christian program is rendered in incredible detail, but the stand on which it sits is alluded to through quick gestures. The subject settled on the bed is brought forth and given attention with gorgeous burnt sienna and umber, yet the bed’s platform is roughly sketched and left incomplete, revealing swathes of unprimed canvas. The painstaking and focused brush work zooms into the scene, the partially finished effectively zooms out. The moments of unprimed canvas allow for the same sense of pause enacted by a film director, allowing space for the viewer to reflect and engage intuitively with the questions, concerns and histories offered.
The panel from the schoolyard makes a transition to the interiors of the home by way of a text in Setswana, the lingua franca of Botswana, detailing an allegorical tale passed down and shared through oral tradition. Broadly speaking, oral tradition is not recognized as a mode of research and articulation on par with those forged in the academy, such as archival research or history painting. As a genre originating from seventeenth-century Europe, history painting shared narratives which championed the nation-state, along with its culture and practices, creating a sense of history for a relatively new system of political organization.
As an artist who is committed to reshaping and reorienting the ways we narrate and disseminate history, why would Mokgosi use the very colonialist vehicle which assisted in the creation of conditions for present-day social, political and cultural exclusion, especially within this body of work focused on feminism and gendered labor? The use of the established genre provides a familiar visual language, and thus an access point into previous logics of representation. It is this access point from which Mokgosi can dismantle entrenched colonialist ideas and theories surrounding who and what is portrayed, while simultaneously centering the bodies of those who experience the emotional and psychic realities built from those ideas and theories.
History paintings also promoted western notions of aesthetics, values and ethics alongside heteronormative and patriarchal norms, as they forefront the stories of white men. It is how a society saw the ideal in images. In the vivid and significant details of ephemera in the subjects’ homes, Mokgosi documents how a similar move happens today. Magazine pages decorate a home, picturing the material objects attached to what builds a good life: vacations, cars, nice homes. Depictions of socioeconomic units such as nuclear families and business executives at work are nestled next to positively charged text—Empower, Rising Stars, Team Players, Outstanding Leaders, It’s an Entrepreneur’s World, A Success Story.
Away from a nationalist narrative offering a shiny picture of economic growth, Mokgosi directs our attention to a reality of entrepreneurial spirit. In a panel of a roadside stand set between a half-done background and foreground, the image sharpens on fruit and biscuit packages; these goods become the subject as they are arranged and rendered in still life. Tuck shops, or small retail stores in southern Africa, are usually run by women as a way to provide for their families and communities. Improvised shops become institutions. Where the success story of Botswana’s democracy does not provide for its residents, these women create their own means, and for Mokgosi that is a form of feminism which is lived, not theoretical, and different from a Western take. (Stephanie Koch)
Meleko Mokgosi: Bread, Butter, and Power, at the Smart Museum of Art, 5550 South Greenwood, through December 15. Manet & Mokgosi—Oysters/Butter/Bread, Part II of a free sketching workshop, at the Smart Museum of Art on December 5.