Meleko Mokgosi: Acts of Resistance
WHEN: On view May 2 through August 12, 2018. Mokgosi will give a talk about his work at the BMA with Senior Curator Kristen Hileman on Tuesday, May 1. The exhibition galleries will open at 5 p.m. and the talk will follow in the auditorium at 6 p.m.
WHERE: Baltimore Museum of Art’s galleries of European art, 10 Art Museum Dr., Baltimore
ADMISSION: free and open to the public; no registration required
In an exhibition that includes a suite of new paintings by the artist that examines the idea of resistance, defined by Mokgosi as any instance in which a subject refuses to give in to the oppression of her or his spirit, these large-scale figurative paintings rethink the tradition of historical European compositions by depicting daily life in southern African nation-states and post-colonial ideals of democracy.
“Meleko Mokgosi asks us to consider images of black men and women as embodiments of love, intimacy, and strength in a post-colonial world,” said BMA Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director Christopher Bedford. “The placement of his virtuosic paintings adjacent to the BMA’s galleries of European Old Masters shows the formal influence of these historic works on the present, as well as the radical innovations in contemporary portraiture being led by artists like Mokgosi.”
Several of Mokgosi’s compositions were informed by specific paintings in the BMA’s collection, such as Madonna Adoring the Child with Five Angels, c. 1485–1490 by Sandro Botticelli, a master narrative in Western painting that has taught viewers to read spirituality and adoration in the specifics of a subject’s gender and race. Just as the white figures depicted by European artists in the BMA’s galleries are understood as representations of religious devotion, motherhood, power, wealth, love, and more rather than as “white,” Mokgosi’s beautiful and precisely rendered figures and their emotional bearing, interrelationships, and geographically specific contexts seek to transcend generalizing categories and marginalizing reactions.
“From a Euro-centric vantage point, black figures are almost always interpreted as representing difference or an exception to the “normal” array of white-skinned figures who dominate not only artworks, but positions of historical, political, and economic privilege,” said Senior Curator of Contemporary Art Kristen Hileman. “A Euro-centric viewer’s reflection on a black subject in painting might encompass more than the idea of difference, but it can seldom escape entirely from this initial designation of “other.”
Mokgosi’s highly realistic style alludes to pre-photographic celebrations of painting that equated an artist’s mastery with his ability to convincingly portray the world. He also points to the 20th century’s adoption of realism for political propaganda and advertising. Although the artist positions himself as a history painter, he does so to argue that this mode of painting, both in the distant past and in its more recent incarnations, has gone beyond providing a skewed vision of the world; it has destroyed truths through its biases, inaccuracies, and omissions. His choice of materials also turns a canonized tradition into a tool to resist the tyrannical implications of the same tradition. He uses clear gesso rather than conventional white paint to prime his canvases, calling attention to the fact that the depicted scenes were not generated from a literal or symbolic white background. The glimpses of beige canvas disrupt any sense of illusionism and acknowledge the limits of all pictures in fully representing our world, our histories, and ourselves.