Pax Kaffraria (2010 – 2014) is an eight-chapter project that takes Botswana, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe as case studies, and articulates questions around issues of national identification, colonial history, globalization, trans-nationality, whiteness, "African-ness," and post-colonial aesthetics. In this work, Mokgosi continues his interrogation regarding the implications of established histories, and more broadly the construction of narrative. His work examines notions of time and normative models for the inscription and transmission of history, ultimately disrupting traditional, fundamentally European notions of representation. Mokgosi utilizes cinematic tropes, history painting, post-colonial theory, and psychoanalysis to question accepted understandings and constructions of representation. In doing so, his work offers new epistemological, ideological, and symbolic ways of undercutting normative narrative structures and stories, as a way to posit alternate modes for the creation of knowledge through visual language.
Pax Kaffraria brings together two terms. The word “pax,” taken from the original phrase: “we Romans have purchased the pax Romana with our blood,” highlights the essence of institutionalized, enforced “peace” at the height of the Roman Empire. “Pax Romana,” contrary to conventional belief is not about peace but rather about nationalism; it is precisely about the bond between blood and soil that undergirds nationalist projects and a certain understanding of “peace.” “Kaffraria” is a term that was first used by the British in the eighteenth century to establish “British Kaffraria”: a subordinate administrative entity that was primarily inhabited by the Xhosa. More precisely, “kaffraria” is a British adaptation of the word “kaffir,” derived from Arabic and coopted by the Dutch or Boer in South Africa, and used as the equivalent of the derogatory term “nigger.” Pax Kaffraria then is a forcefully made appellation that is chiefly historical and mythical, thus the project primarily aims at investigating the multiple facets that account for the driving force of national identification and liberation movements both in their emergent and subsequent forms.
Oil and charcoal on canvas, 95" diameter
Sikhuselo Sembumbulu, 2012
Oil and charcoal on canvas, 96" x 632"
Installation View, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Terra Nullius, 2012
Oil and charcoal on canvas, 84" x 444"
Installation view, Studio Museum in Harlem, New York
Terra Pericolosa, 2013
Oil and charcoal on canvas, 84"x96", 108"x132", 168"x84", 108"x132", 84"x96"
Installation view, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
Oil and charcoal on canvas, 96"x108", 96"x96", 96"x144"
Fully Belly, 2014
Oil and charcoal on canvas, 84"x96", 96"x108", 96"x168", 140"x84"
Fully Belly II, 2014
Oil and charcoal on canvas, 90"x114", 90"x108", 90"x84"
Ruse of Disavowal, 2013
Oil and Charcoal on Canvas, 108"x132", 96"x132", 96"x180", 108"x180", 108"x132", 96"x132", 108"x132"
Installation view, Lyon Biennale, Museum of Contemporary Art, Lyon, France
Modern Art: The Root of African Savages (2012 – 2014) addresses the problematic reinscription of colonial discourses in an ongoing series of paintings using museum labels as source material. Mokgosi makes critical interventions in the didactics that structure the way the public understands works of art, systematically deconstructing the power dynamics and cultural biases that underpin these presumably neutral, educational descriptors. In this work, Mokgosi takes as his subject the exhibition African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2012).
Modern Art: The Root of African Savages, 2012-2013
Inkjet and charcoal on linen, 10 panels, 36" x 24" each
Modern Art: The Root of African Savages II, 2012-2014
Inkjet and charcoal on linen, 16 panels, 24"x18" each
Wall of Casbah (2009 – 2014) addresses the problematic reinscription of colonial discourses in an ongoing series of paintings using museum labels as source material. Mokgosi makes critical interventions in the didactics that structure the way the public understands works of art, systematically deconstructing the power dynamics and cultural biases that underpin these presumably neutral, educational descriptors. In this work, Mokgosi takes as his subject the exhibition Walls of Algiers: Narratives of the City (Getty Center, 2009).
Wall of Casbah, 2014
Inkjet and charcoal on linen, 24"x18" each
In this body of work, Mokgosi presents renderings of distinctly southern African breeds of dog, renderings of signs inextricably indexed to nationalist, colonial and post-colonial desires. Dogs and their breeding are so closely allied with developments in human society that they become a poignant way to tease out the political, emotional, and economic aspects of the legacies of colonialism. Rhodesian Ridgebacks were bred by colonialists to embody an “ideal” balance of European and African hunting dogs for use by the European settlers of sub-Saharan Africa. The Boerboel, an imposing mastiff, was bred by Afrikaner farmers expressly for guarding homesteads; they literally defended the colonial enterprise. The Africanis, disdained by European settlers for decades, has now been revered as an indigenous breed and dubbed “the dog of Africa,” inspiring the launch of societies to preserve it in the 1990s. Through these works, echoing the animals seen throughout the Pax Kaffraria project, the dogs become diachronic characters in the drama of southern African nationalisms.
Oil and charcoal on canvas, 96"x216"
Boerboel, Africanis, Rhodesian Ridgeback (Installation view, Honor Fraser), 2014
Charcoal on paper, 72"x130", 72"x216", 72"x130"
Full Belly, 2011
Oil and charcoal on canvas, 72”x90”, 72”x108”, 84”x120”, 96”x84”
Satisfaction of Sensation, 2011
Oil and charcoal on canvas, 96”x96”, 72”x90”, 108”x72”, 96”x144”
Good Boy, 2011
Oil and charcoal on canvas, 96”x144”, 96”x144"
Inkjet and charcoal on canvas, 8 panels, 34”x40” each
Installation view, Vox Populi, Philadelphia
Meleko Mokgosi (b. Francistown, Botswana) is an artist who works within an interdisciplinary framework to create large-scale project-based installations. By working with figurative (history) painting, cinematic tropes, psychoanalysis, and post-colonial theory, his practice interrogates the specificity of regionalism in order to address questions of nationhood, colonial and anti- colonial sentiments, and the perception of historicized events. Being educated mostly in Botswana, Mokgosi came to the United States in 2003 to pursue tertiary education in the Arts. Following his scholarship at Williams College, MA and the Slade School of Fine Arts, he attended the Whitney Independent Study Program in 2007. Thereafter, he studied under the mentorship of Mary Kelly at the UCLA Interdisciplinary Studio Practice program. He lives and works between the US and Botswana.
Meleko Mokgosi uses painting to interrogate the very concerns that inform its death drive: the limits of representation, the politics of abstraction, and the mode of viewing enabled by rectangular canvases on a gallery wall. The artist’s technical acuity delivers a kind of critical visuality, asking viewers to draw out affinities between experiencing and interpreting. Pax Kaffraria: Sikhuselo Sembumbulu (2012) addresses the question of nationalism in relation to globalization and resistance. The work meditates on sikhuselo sembumbulu, a Xhosa term meaning “bulletproof.” This is a reference to the Xhosa cattle killings of 1856–57, which were intended to drive away colonial powers and simultaneously resurrect ancestors. The series of works frames the historic event and considers a legacy of resistance that continues today—namely, the persistent drive to become bulletproof. At the same time this history is represented as only partially available to viewers, suggesting the difficulty of cultural translation.
- Malik Gaines