Take just one scenario in a three-part painting by Botswana-born Meleko Mokgosi. First is a rough outline of a boy rolling up a sleeve, second is a larger realistic rendering of a young black African woman in a dress sitting on the ground, a white boy wrapping his arms around her neck from behind to her mild surprise. Third, even larger, is a poised painted portrait of a woman in a chair next to some flowers, in front of portraits of important men, some in military uniforms.
This is a lot to grapple with — and such resonant meaning is the pleasure of any series of Mokgosi paintings. But is the boy choking the girl, and she putting up with it, as a metaphor for colonial rule? Are the men in frames a masculine history of post-colonial struggles? And who is the woman, what are her dreams?
You can, in fact, bask in the many large, sometimes imperious paintings in “Meleko Mokgosi: Democratic Intuition” at Jack Shainman’s gallery in Kinderhook, without knowing what is going on. You have a sense that you are witnessing a thorough revision of first world impressions of contemporary life in southern Africa.
This rather epic, seven-part exhibition by the African artist, now based in Brooklyn, is a critical primer about life today in a once-colonial land. The paintings suggest everyday situations, often storyboarded from photographs, loaded with implications, some obvious and some inaccessible without devoted reading and looking.
Even the show statement avoids clear answers: “Democratic Intuition is an eight chapter project that questions conceptions of democracy in relation to the daily lived experiences of southern Africans.” We have women embracing women, dogs resting (lots of dogs, in fact), and men posing. There is lots of posing. There are domestic scenes and street views, some miming the compositions of long outdated European paintings.
Mokgosi’s certitude locks you in. When someone is simply posed for us, we have to assume an allegory about autonomy and identity, about taking on the reality of 21st-century Botswana. There are inverted scenes, which I interpret in the simplest way: normalcy has been turned on its head. There are texts assailing presumptions about Euro-American art, high-minded and annotated as a kind of persuasion, and old news to many. There are historic cameos — including Nelson Mandela on a cake — and power dynamics that relate to a not-so-distant past.
Subjects confront us eye to eye. Even in works modeled after religious paintings, like “Lerato: Agape I” with a woman in robes surrounded by rapturous children, the main subject makes unflinching eye contact. “Phila II” depicts two women posing, stiffly, along with a shadowy figure in the back who might represent a specter of past women. Plus a dog.
The work is as didactic as it is powerful. It realigns and filters our view. It is grandiose. It is simultaneously obscure and obvious. There is an old feeling of 20th-century dialectics in play. Mokgosi has been known to encourage any reading a visitor might bring, and at public lectures he can artfully dodge questions about interpretation. This seems like a veteran of the media machine at work, but it might also be an admission of a knowing, deconstructive powerlessness.
“Democratic Intuition” proves the artist’s own point that his art is “the allegory of its misunderstanding.” I found it sobering and impersonal. And a bit academic — no one likes being lectured to. The expert but dispassionate quality of the paint itself, the painted surface, is almost irrelevant. What matters is the iconography, layered and assured and complex. My lack of specific knowledge, even after extended reading, might have finally sustained me, because it was this new — newly defined — Africa, in the big picture, that resonated more deeply than I anticipated.
William Jaeger is a frequent contributor to the Times Union.
If you go
“Meleko Mokgosi, Democratic Intuition”
Where: Jack Shainman Gallery, The School, 25 Broad St., Kinderhook
When: Through Spring 2020
Hours: Saturdays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. and by appointment.
Info: http://www.jackshainman.com/school/ or 518-758-1628
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