Pax Kaffraria: Sikhueselo Sembumbulo (2012), Botswana-born painter Meleko Mokgosi’s stunning 60-foot-long canvas currently on view at the Hammer Museum at part of “Made in L.A.,” presents viewers with a portrait of postcolonial life in southern Africa. Comprising 10 interlocking panels and wrapping three gallery walls, the painting evidences Mokgosi’s unusual social realism, involving both crisply rendered figures from African society and politics, and passages of raw empty canvas. This allusive visual strategy, in which larger-than-life African priests, soldiers and grandmothers float atop blank zones of negative space, results in a “realism” that is magical, imaginative and fluid. Rather than emulating journalistic set pieces with fixed story frames, Mokgosi’s paintings come to us as detective stories or dreamscapes from a faraway continent.
Raised in the city of Maun in the heart of the Okavango Delta, Mokgosi began drawing in primary school. “I drew for years in Botswana, mostly self-portraits and images from photographs, before emigrating to the United States in 2003 to attend Williams College. It was there that I really started painting.”
After participating in the Whitney Independent Study program and attending UCLA, Mokgosi is currently an artist-in-resident at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where he is working on the eighth and final chapter in his “Pax Kaffraria” painting series “I began ‘Kaffraria’ in 2011,” explains Mokgosi, “to explore how people in southern Africa think about nationhood. Kaffraria comes from ‘British Kaffraria,’ the name of a black settlement that the British established when they first arrived here. Today it’s code for ‘kaffir,’ the equivalent of the ‘n word.’ Each chapter deals with a different set of issues, so for example the first, Lekgowa, which means white/light-skinned person, examines how white and black people’s identification procedures are inextricably bound together.”
Sikhueselo Sembumbulo, the gargantuan work at the Hammer, is the seventh chapter in the Kaffraria series. Its title, a Xhosa word meaning “bulletproof,” is a reference to the so-called “Xhosa cattle killings” of 1856-57, when the Xhosa people in Cape Colony (formerly part of Botswana, Cape Colony is now part of South Africa) sacrificed over 400,000 cows in order to revive the spirits of their ancestors and thus combat colonial power. Mokgosi uses this tragic historic event, which resulted in the expansion of British territory and the death of 40,000 Xhosa from starvation, to anchor a chain of vignettes that address imperialism, globalization and nationalism in Africa. A sepia-soaked central panel strewn with slain bulls and dagger-wielding warrior tribesmen gives way to various scenes: an African priest clenching a bible and a giant golden crucifix, a 19-century military sergeant clad in Royal British garb, a well-to-do suited businessman at home in his modern living room, a glamorous couple in satin couture and Ray-Ban sunglasses dancing on the ballroom floor, white and black politicians in conversation.
Cast as existential everymen, Mokgosi’s figures come to us as actors on the screen, their drama a monumental unfolding. Mokgosi, who counts film as one of his primary influences, speaks of “storyboarding out” his narratives and considers the painting’s panels as individual “strips of celluloid,” their vast fields of unprimed canvas as filmic “pauses.” Like social commentators of the past such as Larry Rivers and Leon Golub, who worked in a similarly open and unfinished tradition, Mokgosi channels his painterly “pauses” to allow us as Westerners a psychic entry point into stories that may seem out of reach if handled differently. Referring as they do to issues such as Zimbabwe’s “Indigenization Act,” which requires at least 51% of all companies to be owned by native-born Zimbabweans, had the canvases been overly worked-out, inch-by-inch, their intrinsic unfamiliarity might have closed them off from us before our wonder had the chance to trigger. Now they are who-dunnits that leave us standing before the spectre of history in a state of suspension and expectancy. This image stream continues at the Studio Museum, where excerpts from Mokgosi’s Terra Nullius (2009–2012), the fifth chapter in his “Pax Kaffraria” series, will be on view through Oct. 21.