Allegories of Painting: Review of Meleko Mokgosi’s Democratic Intuition: Lerato

“Democratic Intuition, Lerato I,” 2016. Oil on canvas, 96 x 78 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Democratic Intuition: Lerato at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York City, September 8 – October 22, 2016

Democratic Intuition: Lerato is part of an ongoing series of exhibits by the Botswana-born, NYC-based painter Meleko Mokgosi.(Another installment of the project, Comrades II, ran concurrently at the Shainman Gallery’s second site. I make brief reference tothis other exhibit, but focus my analysis on Lerato.) The first iteration, Exordium, was shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston in 2015, and was followed by Comrades at the Stevenson Art Gallery, Cape Town, in 2016. In his new show at Jack Shainman (20th St.), Mokgosi presents Lerato alongside Comrades II at the gallery’s second Chelsea site. The series explores how a democracy is sustained and nurtured beyond formal political mechanisms. The symbols of democracy as a political system, such as community participation, voting booths, and houses of parliament, are but a spectral presence in the paintings. The viewer, instead, finds herself surrounded by images of matriarchs, bulls, household items, class portraits from high school, and long, untranslated texts in Setswana. The challenge for the viewer of these shows is to think through the connections that suture everyday experience to the politics of democracy, and to stretch beyond their immediate knowledge base to think this connection as it appears in Southern Africa, and as Southern Africa relates to the world.

“Democratic Intuition, Lerato IV,” 2016. Oil on canvas, bleach on portrait linen; 72 x 191 1/4 inches; 90 x 90 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.Mokgosi began work on this series in 2014, shortly after completing the series Pax Kaffraria (2010-2014), which itself followed Pax Afrikaner (2008-2011). Across these series, Mokgosi, who has resided primarily in the United States since 2003, pursues the possibility of political subjects and institutions that can move beyond the impasses of racism and violence, while remaining aware of the limits of human finitude and comprehension. A graduate of the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program, as well as UCLA’s Interdisciplinary Studio Program, Mokgosi’s practice is deeply informed by the history of political aesthetics and the rigorous study of critical theory. To understand his new works, then, we will also have to come to terms with the difficult conceptual apparatus that surrounds them. Indeed, I will be arguing, a large part of the meaning of Mokgosi’s work is that any naively experiential engagement with his paintings is bound to bring with it histories of both colonial prejudice and philosophical blunder. This review-essay thus explores both the formal attributes of his paintings and the conceptual stakes they raise.

In this show, Mokgosi has identified lerato, a Setswana word that roughly translates as love (more on this below), as a fundamental component of the ties that make a democratic community possible.(Meleko Mokgosi, in discussion with the author, August 2016. I had two informal conversations with Mokgosi prior to writing this review. One took place just before the show opened (August), and the other just after (September).) But Mokgosi is no sentimentalist; he is as appreciative of the highest ideals of love and democracy as he is aware of the nefarious uses of both. On large canvases, with rich colors, he presents the humans and objects that form these dueling potentials. Thus, as the viewer enters the gallery, she is first presented with warm images of household goods, and then a sordid appeal to the empty, pop love of advertising.

It would be a mistake to “read” this show as a simple exploration of the relationship between love and politics, however. For what intercedes, quite literally, on the viewer’s discernment of these images is the problem of reading itself. After all, it is safe to assume that most Chelsea gallerygoers do not speak the Setswana language that is inscribed on the paintings that surround these opening images. So how are they to understand the works in the show, given the prominent place of long, untranslated texts in Setswana?(Mokgosi told me while gallerists were required by the artist to give overviews of the texts to anyone who asked, no one was told that the gallerists had such knowledge, and their versions of the stories often suffered a “whisper down the lane” degradation – something I experienced after hearing Mokgosi’s version and the gallerist’s of a few different paintings. Mokgosi, in discussion with the author, September 2016.)

This problem of interpretation is something that viewers have often queried Mokgosi about, asking how they can interpret images whose contexts, history, and symbolism they know so little about.(Meleko Mokgosi, in discussion with the author, September 2016.) I read the works in Lerato as, in part, an answer to that question. In a sense, this turn to interpretation is a precondition to the possibility of democracy, for it is hard to see how a community can hold together if its members do not understand each other (even if, as we shall see, part of what they need to understand is the impossibility of their fully understanding each other). The works respond to this problem of interpretation in two interconnected ways: by destabilizing the assumption that the history of Botswana is disconnected from the history of modern art in the West, and by destabilizing the assumption that even if one does know context, that an interpretation is therefore readily available. Before we can properly see Mokgosi’s paintings, then, we have to engage with his para-painterly interests in the theory of interpretation and the history of art.

As he was painting these canvasses, Mokgosi was simultaneously reading the works of the literary theorist Paul de Man. (Meleko Mokgosi, in discussion with the author, August 2016.) De Man’s theories of reading and allegory will not elucidate the meaning of Mokgosi’s paintings; rather, they will help us understand what we cannot understand about them. De Man’s target across his dense and formidable writings was what he called “the systematic avoidance of the problem of reading.”(Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 282.) “Reading” for de Man is not isolated to words on a page but rather to all interpretation. “The problem of reading” is our attempt to develop definitive meanings for the things we read (or see or hear) in spite of the fact that there is an unbridgeable gap between a sign (word or image) and its referent. When we see the woman floating above the bed in Mokgosi’s painting, for example, we cannot give a fixed interpretation. I have suggested that it relates to the theme of love in the show, but one may just as well say that it is about image-making, or commodity fetishism, or the painter’s attempt to fix and trap the Western gaze. Because of the indeterminacy of symbols, there can be no absolute point at which to fix our “reading” of this image. All we can do, as I have done, is to propose what de Man calls “misreadings,” attempts to sketch out a possible meaning, knowing full well the inherent limits of that attempt.

This theory of reading is the first part of Mokgosi’s answer to his perplexed viewers: you should not assume the transparency of meaning to any work, from any culture or historical period. Knowing the context does not and cannot remove the problem of reading. De Man also uses the concept of allegory to underscore this difficulty. He does not accept the standard definition that an allegory tells one story in order to signify meaning about another event. (As Lord of the Rings is, for example, sometimes said to be an allegory for World War I.) In Allegories of Reading de Man offers this cryptical definition: “Allegories are always…allegories of the impossibility of reading.”(Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche,Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 205.) Allegories are not stories about stories, then. They are stories about how a story can never, in fact, definitively signify any specific meaning. Mokgosi is explicit that his paintings have been influenced by de Man’s theory of allegory as well.(Both in conversation and in the press release. Meleko Mokgosi, in discussion with the author, August 2016; Jack Shainman Gallery. 2016. Meleko Mokgosi: Democratic Intuition, Lerato.) Constantly asked about the meaning of his work, he claims that they are allegories in de Man’s sense, which is to say, they are about the fact that they will be misunderstood: “[The work] knows and asserts that it will be misunderstood. It tells the story, the allegory of its misunderstanding.”(Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight, 136.)

This is not the end of the story, however. Mokgosi’s works, though indebted to de Man, also depart from his arguments. While it may be true that the gap between the sign and referent cannot be overcome, it is equally the case that words do manage to express some basic meanings. The very intelligibility of de Man’s own theory is proof of this! This is signified in Mokgosi’s decision to call the show Lerato. As he explains, “Lerato is compelling to me because it is not an abstract and poetic concept [like love, its possible translation]…but rather it is as concrete as a human subject.”(Jack Shainman Gallery. 2016. Meleko Mokgosi: Democratic Intuition: Lerato.) Lerato, in other words, both conforms to and departs from de Man’s theory. It is unstable because its referent is always unclear, yet, Mokgosi insists, it is able to break through the layers of language to become real in a human subject. Perhaps this insistence on something beyond language is part of why he paints such dense, bold images.

Further still, de Man’s theory does not necessarily help us parse other ways in which meaning is fractured. If someone shouts “Look, a negro!” (to take Frantz Fanon’s famous example), that speech act obviously signifies differently for people who have been racialized in different ways. As a reflection upon language itself, de Man’s theory is limited to analyzing general conditions, not specific histories.(This does not mean that his theories cannot be put to that use, as Gayatri Spivak attempted to show in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).) Mokgosi’s histories, however, emerge out of such specific, violent histories. Two key themes of Mokgosi’s show merge here: the possibility of communication within a fractured world, and the fact that such a possibility rests on coming to terms with the histories of colonialism.

“Democratic Intuition, Lerato I,” 2016. Oil on canvas, 96 x 78 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.To see how this plays out in the paintings, we first need to understand how Mokgosi is challenging the formalist history of modern art. In the standard story, modern art achieved abstraction through a process similar to de Man’s; that is, by reflecting on its own internal components. In this inward turn, color, line, and shape replaced the representation of reality as the subject of painting. As Clement Greenberg put it, to take a notable example, “In turning his attention away from subject matter of common experience, the poet or artist turns it in upon the medium of his own craft.”(Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon, 1989), 6. Greenberg, it should be noted, did suggest that this was itself a response to changes in bourgeois culture, but he does not make the link to colonialism, in spite of his interest in “primitive painting.”) And both Greenberg and de Man maintain a basic principle: this is a Western history. This is a history of how European writers and artists turned into the medium of their language or painting and, thereby, transformed the subject of art. It is this history that Mokgosi challenges by engaging the allegorical works of the late nineteenth-century French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Many of the paintings in Lerato recast the images of Bouguereau. For example, Mokgosi significantly transforms the latter’s The Motherland (1883). He keeps the basic composition of the original: a mother, her breasts exposed, stares stoically out as her children clamor, beg, and fight around her. He makes some marked changes, too, altering the race of the mother and softening her gaze a little, adding a white child in a supplicant pose, and reducing the background from Bouguereau’s dreamy landscape to a few blocks of color. These small changes are of great significance.

We should first note that Bouguereau’s painting is a classic example of allegory; here, the mother stands in for France, and the children for her citizens and colonial subjects. Mokgosi transforms this classical allegory into what we could call, following de Man, an “allegory of painting.” That is to say, as in Greenberg’s theory of modernism, they are paintings about painting itself. But moving beyond Greenberg’s formalist conception, they suggest that for a painting to be about painting, it must be about what painting denies in the construction of its own formalism. That is, it must recognize that form and history and inseparable. In asserting that painting is about line, color, form, and so forth, one denies that painting is equally about the creation and imagination of race, the nation-state, the colonial ideology. This is what Mokgosi’s painting, by transforming the color of the mother, reveals. It insists that the questions of representation, slavery, and colonialism are already in Bouguereau’s paintings at the “formal” level of color. As Françoise Vergès puts it in another context, “the centuries of slave trade and slavery were not about ‘something over there,’ but were also about [Europeans’] own society, about how their daily lives had been deeply transformed by sugar, tobacco, coffee, and cotton and about the birth of antiblack racism.”(Françoise Vergès “The Slave at the Louvre: An Invisible Humanity,” Nka 38-39 (2016): 10.) And this can also be seen as part of Mokgosi’s response to his perplexed viewers: the history of Africa is already part of “your” history, just as much as the history of Europe has indelibly marked the present of Africa.

Greenberg wrote of pre- or anti-modernists like Bouguereau: “Everything [in their work] contributes to the denial of the medium, as if the artist were ashamed to admit that he had actually painted his picture instead of dreaming it forth.”(Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoön,” in Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, Ed. Francis Franscina (New York: Routledge, 2000), 63.) This is why Mokgosi’s transformation of the background is important. He removes the dreamy landscape and gives a few, abstract blocks of color. I read the painting as suggesting a concrete link between this nineteenth-century moment and the move toward abstraction. This link is absent from the formalist narrative. In Greenberg’s story, it is by admitting to the fact of painting, by taking on the burden of the form, that art moved past this representational impasse. It is Bouguereau that modernism must escape to become modern.

Installation view of “Democratic Intuition, Lerato,” at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, 2016. Photo courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.Mokgosi’s work subtly suggests a different history. He notes that Bouguereau painted Motherland in 1883, a year of ongoing colonial struggles over the division of Africa, and a year before the Berlin Conference that haphazardly divided the continent among Western powers, fomenting much of the internal strife within African nations that we still see today.(Meleko Mokgosi, in discussion with the author, September 2016. On this history see, for example, Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).) How might this context help us understand how we go from, say, Bouguereau to Picasso? Because what is happening in the colonial context is the same break up of space that will later be depicted in his canvasses. Africa is being parceled up into fragmentary and incoherent states, just as Picasso’s geometry does to an object. The “scramble for Africa” is, thus, revealed as one of the constitutive conditions for the “scrambling” of representation in works by Picasso and others.(For an insistence on thinking Picasso’s relation to Africa as “constitutive” of his art, see Simon Gikandi, “Picasso, Africa, and the Schemata of Difference,” Modernism/modernity 10.3 (2003): 455-480. I mention this piece also because of its importance for Mokgosi. Meleko Mokgosi, in discussion with the author, September 2016.) This constitution is often reduced to a “formal” effect, which is to say that sculptures from Africa offered new ways of representing the human body.(Denise Murrell’s “African Influences in Modern Art,” written for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website, is here a representative account. (2008).) By combining elements of abstraction and fragmentation with this specific painting from this specific year, Mokgosi is suggesting that the abstract turn is an epiphenomenon of the deeper struggle. The history of form is not (or not just) about painting turning in on itself; the history of form is also the history of colonial politics.

This critique of pure formalism is equally part of the response to de Man: the fracture between sign and meaning is not simply a generic, transhistorical condition. It is also produced by the violence of colonialism. It is this violence that rips apart the meaning of Bouguereau’s allegory, as much as the generic “problem of reading.” By restoring this violence to the image, Mokgosi cannot create a determinate meaning, but he can shift the terrain of meaning that appears in the original image. He can call up the original’s colonial unconscious. Thus, his paintings are not just about the impossibility of communication as such, but about the specific ways in which our own blindness to history complicates the possibility of understanding. Equally, as with the word lerato, they are about how this problem can, even if to a limited extent, be overcome.

“(Angels) Democratic Intuition, Lerato,” 2016. Oil on canvas, 90 x 179 1/4 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.Consider in this context Mokgosi’s representation of a well-known allegory—a man wrestling an angel. Mokgosi depicts two figures (one man, one angel) wrestling in the sand in the foreground, with an onlooker and seeming future challenger in the background. As in his recasting of Motherland, this painting’s spatial features are created through abstraction: streaks of yellow create sand, and a black line creates the outer border of the wrestling space, perhaps a stadium. By using abstraction to signify concrete spaces, Mokgosi’s painting again joins the generic with the specific. This image, of course, represents the Biblical parable of Jacob wrestling the Angel. There is again the problem of reading here: is that not just an imposition of a Western narrative onto a scene from Botswana? And, indeed, it may be. Still, it is also important to remember that while the Abrahamic faiths eventually travelled West, they had their origins in North Africa and the Middle East, and they ultimately returned to these spaces in the colonial era. It is this intertwining of origins, this inseparability of representation, violence, and form, and this undecidability of interpretation that marks all the works in this show.

And at the same time, the exhibition is marked by a desire to overcome some of these conditions. We have seen these dueling desires since the juxtaposition of the first two paintings in the gallery. De Man found these opposites to be represented by the allegory and the symbol: “Whereas the symbol postulates the possibility of an identity or identification, allegory designates primarily a distance in relation to its own origin, and renouncing the nostalgia and the desire to coincide, it establishes its language in the void of this temporal difference.(”Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight, 207.) Symbols are hopeless dreams for transcendence; allegories represent the difficult truth of the failure for the fullness of meaning. I think we can read the figure of the Angel here as a symbol, and I would read it as the symbol of presence. Whereas humans are finite, and their meaning always eclipsed by history, the angel represents the hope for a way of being beyond the ravages of time. Perhaps we could say, the Angel is the fulfillment of the community of love in a democracy, and the humans are the forces of time that always seem to make such a redeemed society impossible.(There is also arguably a visual lineage from depictions of Jacob wrestling the Angel (such as Gustave Doré’s on the Wikipedia page for the story, from 1855) through to Mark Tansey’s Derrida Queries de Man (1990). Here, Mokgosi is querying de Man.) It is in the struggle (the wrestling match) of these two forces that life as we know it takes place. Perhaps this is why the image of the wrestlers sits in the middle of the gallery, a base out of which the rest of the work expands.

Installation view of “Democratic Intuition, Lerato,” at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, 2016. Photo courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.In the end, while drawing sustenance from the work of the great literary theorist, Mokgosi avoids de Man’s mistake of assuming that only the failure is real. Democratic Intuitions insists that historical embodiment, fleeting though it may be, matters as much as formal anguish. Mokgosi’s work thus holds out the possibility of redemption, fullness, and meaning, while remaining fully aware of the inevitable reversals of time. And it won’t let us stop looking before we acknowledge that we, too, are locked in this violent yet hopeful struggle.