Artist Meleko Mokgosi has been awarded the inaugural Mohn Award, granted to an artist in the premiere “Made in L.A.” biennial, co-organized by the Hammer Museum and LAXART. Mokgosi wins $100,000 and will have a monograph published on his work. The show features 60 Los Angeles artists, from among whom finalists were selected by a jury and then submitted to a public vote open to all visitors to the show.
Born in 1981 in Francistown, Botswana, Mokgosi lives in Culver City. After receiving a BA in art at Williams College, Williamstown, Mass., he attended the Slade School of Art in London and the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York before earning an MFA in 2011 from UCLA, where he worked with Mary Kelly.
Pax Kaffraria: Sikhuselo Sembumbulu (2012), Mokgosi’s painting in the show, is a multipanel work that stretches across three walls and incorporates various found images, including soldiers in ceremonial gear and a scene showing the Xhosa cattle killings of 1856–57, a protest that was, according to the artist, meant to drive out colonists.
“The series is divided into eight chapters,” Mokgosi, who is currently in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, told A.i.A. “This one is titled for the Xhosa word for ‘bulletproof.’ Pax Kaffraria is a term I made up, which comes from Pax Romana, which I associate with the brutal stability of peace deriving from institutionalized force.”
“‘Khaffraria’ comes from a settlement established by the British in the early 19th century for mostly Xhosa people,” he added. “‘Kaffrar’ is the equivalent of ‘nigger’ in Afrikaans. So the project deals with issues of nationalism, anticolonial sentiment and resistance, not only to physical violence but to the financialization of global capital.”
Funded by Jarl Mohn and his wife, Pamela, the prize is the same amount as the Bucksbaum Award, given to an artist in the Whitney Biennial, and is thus among the art world’s more generous awards. (The high-profile Turner Prize, granted by the Tate, is about $40,000.) Jarl Mohn is an investor in digital media ventures and manages the Mohn Family Foundation, which supports arts and media initiatives.
According to the museum, the prize is meant to “shine a light on L.A. artists” and spur attendance. Reaction to the award’s announcement in some quarters of the L.A. art scene has been skeptical; an article this month at online magazine East of Borneo said many in the arts community shared, among other worries, a concern that “the award continues a depressing museum trend toward media-oriented spectacle.”
Mohn, in a telephone interview with A.i.A., observed that, “The concern resulted form the fact that we were doing something new. But everyone I’ve spoken to, including the author of that article, has come to peace with it. Our intention was simply to create more awareness of what is going on in L.A. That’s all we wanted to do. There wasn’t any spectacle. And the work selected was not easy material, so those who wanted to vote really had to give it some thought.”
“We created the award because, being an art collector and living in L.A., it’s a phenomenal artistic community, and I think it’s the best work being done in the world,” Mohn said. “Meleko is such an interesting choice. He really represents the diversity of people and of ideas and creativity that the city is fostering.”
The finalists also included Simone Forti, Liz Glynn, Erika Vogt and Slanguage. The jury consisted of Cecilia Alemani, curator and director of High Line Art Program; Doryun Chong, associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art; Rita Gonzalez, curator of contemporary art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Anthony Huberman, director of The Artists Institute, New York. Visitors to the exhibition were able to vote onsite or online “for their favorite artist,” according to the Hammer. Trofee, a state-certified digital voting platform, administered the system.
“Made in L.A.” is on view at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, LAXART in Culver City, and the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park, in Los Feliz, through Sept. 2.