Writing Art History Since 2002

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Life does not threaten me, 2005, marley tile print, 46 x 65cmWriting in the June 1980 issue of Staffrider, Fikile Magadlela, a leading proponent of Black Consciousness in the visual arts in South Africa, stated: “But there is one thing I believe in; if you draw the black man, he must be beautiful, handsome; the woman must be heavenly. Drape them with the most beautiful clothes – to wash away this whole shit of self-pity.” Leonard Matsoso, Thami Mnyeli and Harry Moyaga agreed with Magadlela’s values. Together, in their different ways, they contributed to the concept of black is beautiful,their work counteracting commercialised ‘township’ art.Both Magadlela and Mnyeli are dead, Matsoso seldom exhibits, and Moyaga lives in Botswana. In recent years their work has only been shown infrequently, leading to the assumption that the movement they pioneered has come to an end. Yet, recently, mannerisms typical of the work of these artists appeared in Dikgwele Paul Molete’s work.Molete is not familiar with the work of the above-mentioned artists, yet the affinities his work shares with their art are striking. He shows the same indifference for academic norms. Therefore a fixed viewpoint to designate distance or space is absent. He often suspends his imagery against oblique horizons; mixes descriptive representation and nonfigurative imagery in one work; and, shares in their unique mark making. This concern for texturing surfaces differs from the drawing techniques taught at art schools where hatching and cross-hatching become tools to fix shape and form. Eventually the painstaking nature of such detailing becomes autonomous and appears effortless, as is evidenced in the pin-like texturing of the work Odium.For Molete, like his predecessors, content is imperative. However, unlike their emphasis on a heroic past, intended to uplift an ebbing morale in the 1970s, Molete’s work reveals a different perspective. His work voices indignation at a society that condones transgression of time honoured human values. From his outrage evolves an unique iconography. In the works Murder I & II an ordinary wire coat hanger looms disturbingly in space. As an exhibit in the courts of humanity its accusation rings out against abortions perpetrated in backyards and under trying conditions.In the portrait Body parts circle, Molete, like his predecessors, applies an x-ray vision to look beyond the skin. Whereas his predecessors used it to emphasise the significance of the skeletal frame and sinuous interplay of muscles and veins, he addresses ritual killings. The portrait is based on a murder of a young woman reported in a newspaper; the woman was skinned alive, her body parts sold for medicine. Molete explores the ineffable issues frequently overlooked by the general public. His imagery, which is deceivingly appealing, gives another perspective on the coinage, black is beautiful. In his hands beauty becomes a tool to reveal the different guises of abuse, disrespect and misapprehension.Elza Miles

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