What's on Los Angeles | Index

by Jody Zellen

November 15, 2018

Meleko Mokgosi
Objects of Desire: Reflections on the African Still Life
Honor Fraser
October 20 - December 19, 2018

Meleko Mokgosi installation view

Meleko Mokgosi is a rare artist whose work demonstrates both classical technique and conceptual rigor. He is an exceptional painter who can easily render his subjects in exacting and realistic detail. He also has the uncanny ability to combine styles and often purposely leaves large areas of raw canvas unfinished to suggest overlapping narratives and timelines. Born in Botswana in 1981, Mokgosi attended Williams College (BA, 2007) and the Whitney Museum's Independent Study Program (also in 2007). He received a MFA from UCLA (2011) and in 2012 participated in the Artist in Residence Program at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Mokgosi came to prominence after receiving the inaugural Mohn Award in conjunction with his installation for Made in L.A. 2012. Since then, Mokgosi has had solo exhibitions in galleries and museums worldwide.

For Objects of Desire: Reflections on the African Still Life, Mokgosi has exchanged his large multi panel narratives in favor of smaller paintings depicting printed posters and advertisements, cropped scenes of interior spaces and isolated figures. While his focus is how African bodies and culture have been depicted and described over time, in this installation he investigates these subjects through the lens of still life— specifically looking at how African objects have been positioned in his own paintings. What sets Mokgosi's work apart is its intellectual intent combined with seductive imagery. For example, in Object of Desire 6 (2018) he juxtaposes a painting of closely cropped wood grain onto which he has superimposed a small light blue circular shape depicting a young white child praying with a painting of a snapshot of an African woman kneeling in the landscape, her body in a position that parallels the praying boy. Between these two canvases are four texts (paper mounted on board) covered with Mokgosi's hand written annotations over art historical texts that reference artists like Picasso, Gauguin, and Max Ernst, perporting to explain the relationship between modern and tribal art.

While at first, Mokgosi's many text panels seem overwhelming and a bit of a chore to read, it soon becomes evident that his commentary on the canon of Art History with respect to the terms primitive and tribal, and the MOMA exhibition, "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern is a combative argument about discourse, history and, context. These texts force his viewers to examine and then reexamine the placement of African objects in his painted interiors. Within his expansive project, Objects of Desire: Reflections on the African Still Life, Mokgosi includes paintings of African sculptures, cave drawings, mothers and sons, smiling brides, advertisements for Sofn'free No-Lye hair products, as well as a poster for the ANC featuring Nelson Mandela. Mokgosi has continued to mine his archives to present divergent representations that illustrate an alternate reading of African art and history.

Also on view in Objects of Desire: Reflections on the African Still Life, are Mokgosi's first sculptures. These objects are carefully constructed replicas of celebratory cakes— one for Robert Mugabe and the other for Nelson Mandela, as well as a decorative jacket and a painted suitcase. Each of these pieces is presented in a vitrine elevating them to museum treasures. Amongst this array of 'African' imagery, Mokgosi investigates issues relating to class, race, power and identity. That he intersperses his reading of art history between these painted and sculpted depictions speaks to his interests in not only an art historical discourse, but one that also encompasses popular culture.

Note: This review was first published in Visual Art Source's Weekly Newsletter on November 9, 2018.