SPECTRES OF VIOLENCE
ALEXANDRA DODD TRACES THE RAPID RISE OF THE SCULPTOR MOHAU MODISAKENG WHOSE WORK IS POISED BETWEEN INTIMATIONS OF VIOLENCE AND AN APPEAL TO THE SENSUAL.
In a year in which relentless, violent industrial- and public-sector strike action has infused the South African public sphere with a restive mood of struggle, the work of young Soweto-born sculptor Mohau Modisakeng resonates with an unnervingly deep tenor.
“Part of the question that my work attempts to respond to is concerned with the issue of violence and the role it played, and continues to play, in colonial as well as post-colonial African society,” says Modisakeng, whose subtly wrought sculptures grapple with notions of conflict and aggression, and suggest the potential for simmering resentments to escalate to physical violence. Modisakeng frequently references instruments and symbols of violence that have become quite specific to our political and historical context, taking them out of the humdrum realm of news, and repositioning them in the hyper-conscious gallery context in a manner that inspires a rethinking of their power to harm.
“My work investigates … how violence … continues to mediate the complex processes involved in defining and refiguring my own cultural, religious, political, [and] social identity as a black South African,” adds Modisakeng. His body of work has been evolving from one enticing iteration to the next over the course of 2010.
His year began on a strong note with a solo show, entitled iButho (a Zulu word denoting a military regiment), in Michael Stevenson’s Side Gallery in January, an expansion of his Michaelis Graduate Show at which he first exhibited Untitled (Okapi), an outsize replica of a flick knife popular with tradesmen and gangsters. The enlarged scale of the blade conceptually expands the lethal potential of the weapon to cut and damage, while the smooth curves of the carved wooden handle engage the viewer on a sensual level.
The Michael Stevenson show was the first time audiences got to see the performance piece, iButho, in which twelve young black men, dressed in identical black shorts, stood still and silent in a regimented grid-like formation, like some oddly inert army. This work recalls Drum magazine photographer Bob Gosani’s images of the degrading tauza dance that naked prisoners were forced to perform in the courtyard of the notorious Old Fort prison in Hillbrow.
The theatrical poise in Modisakeng’s pieces imparts a creeping sense that the situation might, at any moment, take a turn for the worse. In the paradoxical relationship between the smooth sensuality of their surfaces and the unsettling power of their conceptual freight, his sculptures recall the mood of menace in the work of Jane Alexander, who has been a supervisor and mentor to Modisakeng since he began his studies at Michaelis, where he is currently completing a Master of Fine Arts degree.
The iButho show also featured a series of carved wooden megaphones, an instrument associated with riots and crowd control. But again, the megaphones are static and unable to produce a sound – conjuring a politically charged spectre of violence rather than the bloodiness of violence itself.
Modisakeng next appeared at Spier Contemporary 2010 where his video installation, Sedikwa ke Ntswa’pedi, won him an artist-in-residence grant to the Gyeonggi Creation Centre in South Korea. In June and July his work was exhibited at Brodie/ Stevenson in Johannesburg as part of the This is Our Time show, alongside work by Pieter Hugo, Glenn Ligon, Michael MacGarry and Jo Ractliffe. And the following month he was announced as one of the finalists in the career-making MTN New Contemporaries Award show. Assembled by curator Nontobeko Ntombela, it was a well- conceptualised exhibition with currents of social unease around South Africa’s fraught politics of labour running between the sculptural installations of Modisakeng and Stuart Bird, electrifying the ground-floor space of the KZNSA gallery.
Both his “Inkohliso” series and his Qhatha triptych of self-portraits made Modisakeng a formidable contender for the prize, which went to Kemang Wa Lehulere. In the photographic triptych he enacts a game he recalls from playground scraps as a child growing up in Soweto, where a duel or will to fight would be declared by clapping together fistfuls of red earth. Yet the figure in the images is not a boy, but a grown man wearing a leopard-print vest and industrial apron to denote his working-class identity. The intent of this persona to take the fight to the next level could be read as a metaphor for the spirit of discontent underlying the recent violent industrial action. These images are a stark reminder that working- class disgruntlement with the continuing inequity of the post-apartheid regime is to be ignored at our peril.
But perhaps his most conceptually acute work on the MTN show was his “Inkohliso” series of black disks of painted wood. On a recent visit to his childhood home in Soweto, Modisakeng came upon a badge heralding the ANC kept by his mother as a memento of the country’s first democratic election. The sculptures inspired by the badge are theatrically large-scale versions of the original object. But, in a gesture of arch subversiveness, these monumental objects have been inverted, so instead of seeing the upbeat propaganda on the front of the badge, we are faced with huge circular plains of blackness, interrupted only by the cool metal of the sharpened pins with their potential to pierce. Embodying the flipside of everything that was supposed to go right in this country, these disks are anti-monuments to political failure. Simple, yet imposing in form, they leave a dark impression on the mind.
Alexandra Dodd is an independent writer who is currently registered for a PhD at the University of Cape Town under the auspices of the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative.
First published in Art South Africa Volume 9: Issue 02