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Meleko Mokgosi wants you to see the politics of everyday life
The artist Meleko Mokgosi at his studio in Brooklyn on Oct. 7, 2019. His series “Pan-African Pulp” reinterprets the imagery of popular African graphic novels to highlight the violence of colonialism and the dream of Pan-Africanism. Calla Kessler/The New York Times.

by Laura van Straaten

NEW YORK.- If you’ve ever felt you lack the education to understand art representing histories, people and symbols from a culture outside your own, artist Meleko Mokgosi isn’t going to let you off easy.

With six solo shows in four states this season, the Botswana-born, Brooklyn-based Mokgosi believes that it is incumbent on “first-world” viewers to understand that “the world doesn’t revolve around them. There are other histories.”

This season, Mokgosi, 37, is staking a lot on that first-world (and likely American) viewer. By Nov. 1, when his show at Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg closes, the artist will have taken over both of the Jack Shainman Gallery’s exhibition spaces in Manhattan, as well as its colossal building in Kinderhook, New York. He will also have three solo museum shows: this fall at the University of Michigan’s Museum of Art in Ann Arbor and the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, and later this winter at the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

Mokgosi, whose paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures are as rooted in his native culture as in his readings in post-colonial studies, cinema, psychoanalysis and critical theory, said he wants viewers to “figure out how to empathize and look at something from a position that is not theirs.”

The biggest testing ground for viewers will be the biggest show, which encompasses the 30,000-square-foot former high school in upstate New York that Shainman turned into a gallery called The School. Through next spring, packed in under one roof for the first time, are seven of the eight chapters of Mokgosi’s “Democratic Intuition,” the voluminous series of artworks he began in 2013.

“Democratic Intuition” examines democracy in relation to the daily lives of southern Africans, most often with political imagery like campaign posters as a subtle presence. The show derives its title from critical theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. “Basically, her conceptualization is that democracy depends on our understanding of the state apparatus,” Mokgosi explained. “It’s kind of a counterintuitive intuition.” To understand democracy, you need comfortable access to its various forms and institutions. Then, “depending on how you’re educated, the kind of abstract thinking you have available to you, the kind of resources you have, it will affect how you conceptualize democracy,” he said, adding that the risk is being “miseducated” and “misinformed.”

Although his paintings and sculptures depict African life and he still refers to Botswana as “back home,” he is quick to draw parallels to the electorate in the United States, where he has lived since 2003. “If you look at America and the people who voted for the current sitter in the White House,” he said, “what mental processes happened so that these people are convinced to vote against their own self-interests? Whether it’s class, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, tax breaks or you name it.”

Before bringing his ideas to life with paint, Mokgosi approached “Democratic Intuition” as he does most of his work, first as a research project steeped in theory and history. His one-room studio in Brooklyn’s Industry City has more books than canvases, and he quotes freely from the likes of Spivak, Karl Marx and Paul de Man. He’s bringing that fierce intellectualism for the first time this fall to the Yale School of Art, where he just joined the faculty. He also brings it to the tuition-free Interdisciplinary Art and Theory Program he co-founded in New York. Teaching is his way “to engage with social justice,” he explained, since “I’m not an activist. I don’t go out and protest. I don’t really like protests.”

The one chapter of “Democratic Intuition” missing from Kinderhook, “Bread, Butter, and Power,” is on display at the Smart Museum in Chicago through Dec. 15 as a single-room installation of more than 20 paintings exploring “women’s work” versus “men’s work” and the consequent asymmetries of power.

Artwork from a newer series Mokgosi has termed “Pan-African Pulp” looks at power in a different way and populates the shows at both Shainman’s West 24th Street gallery (Nov. 1 through Dec. 21) and the University of Michigan Museum of Art (through fall 2021). “Pan-African Pulp” extrapolates and reinterprets through a political lens an early type of graphic novel widely circulated in Africa starting in the 1950s.

Popularly called “look-books,” Mokgosi explained, “they weren’t allowed to be political because it was during the apartheid regime.” A popular hero was Lance Spearman, nicknamed the Spear. “It was this kind of adventurous black James Bond figure who’s fighting crime, but the dialogue was tame.” With access to a trove from the Comic Art Collection at Michigan State University, Mokgosi revisits the images in new, more overtly political ways through painting and screen prints. He also, as he put it, has “rewritten the script,” bringing to the surface — in speech bubbles, captions or annotations in his own hand — the violence of colonial and post-colonial Africa and the dream of Pan-Africanism.

Such annotated texts are also part of Mokgosi’s all-new body of paintings on view at Shainman’s West 20th Street gallery (Nov. 1 through Dec. 21). In these large-scale canvases, Mokgosi has painstakingly painted poems and prose by women from Africa and the African diaspora (including from Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved”) whose subjects range from love to liberation. He has then added his own hand-painted analyses as marginalia. The show is titled “The social revolution of our time cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the poetry of the future,” after a line from Marx.

Mokgosi examines a different cultural product in his final show of the season for the Pérez Art Museum Miami (Feb. 27 through May 30, 2021), and it’s an unsettling one. “Meleko Mokgosi: Your Trip to Africa” will be a new site-specific commission of eight paintings created in response to Austrian structuralist filmmaker Peter Kubelka’s gruesome 1966 film “Unsere Afrikareise (Our Trip to Africa),” which exposes the violence of European hunters on safari and is a harsh critique of European colonialism and tourism in Africa.

“That work, like a lot of my work, is never going to be easy to exhibit, sell, or, for some, maybe even to understand,” Mokgosi conceded. “That’s why I feel grateful for the support of the people in these galleries and institutions that care about and are invested in my ideas and commitment to considering other histories.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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