Mohau Modisakeng at Laumeier Sculpture Park
Calling for a meditative healing, visual artist Mohau Modisakeng brings his work of powerful portraiture and performative representations of submersed racial disparities – befittingly, to the St. Louis community. A native of the Soweto township in South Africa, Mohau’s first solo exhibition in the United States recently closed at Laumeier Sculpture Park’s Whitaker Foundation Gallery. Inside the two year old Adam Aronson Fine Arts Center, Mohau pertinently encompasses both the natural landscape and humanity’s place amongst it. Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor has deemed Mohau as a part of a new generational narrative of post-apartheid or “after struggle” photography and this exhibition exemplifies these unresolved tensions of being after one struggle and into another.
Upon entering the ambiently lit space you’re struck by rich visuals of a figure navigating an asphalt terrain, which settles then unsettles with each step. As you watch the film, you learn the figure is Mohau trekking alongside the sonic reverberations of a gonging bell, ascending and descending the distinct landscape in the dual film installation To Move Mountains from 2015. This exhibition evokes a sensation of parallel realities placidly intersecting conflict. A dense contrast and saturated yet tactile photographic quality narrates his portrait series Ga Estho & Endabeni. Mohau draws you in and engages you in a reflection of self and your own relation to the earth, the world, and society.
Your reflections deepen. A wooden sign reads: What are the similarities and differences between America and South Africa today? Is America embarking on a new era of “truth telling” and civil rights, and if so, what form(s) should that take? If the world is a fair place, what would St. Louis look like for all of its residents? There is chalk and a black surfaced table standing in the gallery to capture visitor’s thoughts. Some proposed answers were addressed on November 12th at the lecture discussion and book signing of Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power by Dr. Susan Cahan, but they remain in the space, accruing over the exhibition as unanswered or unanswerable questions in conversation with the work.
In works such as Endabeni 7, Mohau uses performance to explore the representation of the black body. In these portrayals, he is attired in white garments juxtaposed against asphalt mountains in a desolate and devastated environment. Mohau’s garments are symbolic: an aristocratic European black rim hat, apron made of cowhide, white cloak, livestock blinders, and a surgical mask used by coal mine workers as minimal protection from the elements. They elude to labor, status, and the class system that binds his hometown of Soweto township, South Africa, as well as possibly placing a mirror in front of St. Louis’ own sociocultural climate. With a dignified gaze and blackened eyes, Mohau is armed with a machete in Ga Etsho 2. Another theme of elemental allusions emerges with the incorporation of digitally generated smoke in Ga Etsho 4 alongside sedimentary land, and precipitation in To Move Mountains.
The tactile sensations, dense chroma, and figurative stances convey extremities and create a multilayered spatial and corporeal experience in Endabeni 1 and 5. In each photographic display his hands are dipped in black and feet dipped in white paint reinforcing the visual language of dark and light. Foreground and background are used in Endabeni 2 to convey the history of racial and political hierarchies in South Africa while also reflecting America’s continuing conflicts. Mahou introspectively processes these dynamics, using his peaceful yet combative gestures to transcend and transmit as he works through the history of his birthplace. The visual dualism of the exhibition echo the capitalistic and racial history of South African and North American governance and, given the intentionality of its context, further intersects with the racially motivated injustices in St. Louis.