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Meleko Mokgosi at the Fowler Museum

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History painting in the traditional overview of Western art brings to mind canvases that can take up the entire wall of a museum like Jacques Louis David’s idealized view of Napoleon crowning himself emperor of France from 1807. There aren’t many contemporary artists who ally themselves with this genre.

Photography has come to dominate pictorial realism. An exception is Meleko Mokgosi whose 20-panel installation from his ongoing series Democratic Intuition is bringing a new audience to UCLA’s Fowler Museum. Organized by Fowler curator Erica Jones, it is the artist’s first solo museum show in Los Angeles.


Meleko Mokgosi: Bread, Butter, and Power, 2018 Installation view, Fowler Museum at UCLA Courtesy the artist and Honor Fraser, Los Angeles Photo © Monica Nouwens

Three walls of the large gallery are lined with the connected paintings in the manner of a frieze. Though not narrative in a linear fashion, stories are being told with a deep knowledge of recent and past history.

Born in Botswana, educated at Williams College and UCLA, now living in New York, Mokgosi uses the recognizable styles and techniques of pre-modern painting to reflect the lives and aspirations of those living in Southern Africa. This entire installation is conceived as a single entity, chapter five of what will be seven chapters.


Meleko Mokgosi Bread, Butter, and Power, 2018 Courtesy of the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery Photo © Monica Nouwens

If this were simplistic photo-realism, it might generate a shrug of indifference. Mokgosi is blessed with a rare mastery. He executes a storyboard for each picture. Mokgosi then executes the painting directly on raw canvas which means very little latitude for error or alteration. Even seemingly spontaneous strokes of paint from a squeegee to suggest foliage or bed linens are premeditated and controlled.

A few panels feature Botswana school children. One mimics the standard class photo with rows of uniformed adolescents while others show the young people, women and men, working on the grounds of the school. Other paintings portray women in various sorts of labor culminating in a devastating picture of a security officer sitting on the edge of her bed, her reflection bisected in the mirror. A baby doll in a pink frock, the only white figure in all of the paintings, is leaning against the headboard.


Meleko Mokgosi Bread, Butter, and Power, 2018 Courtesy of the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery Photo © Monica Nouwens


Meleko Mokgosi Bread, Butter, and Power, 2018 Courtesy of the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery Photo © Monica Nouwens

The scene is, like many of the most memorable images in this show, a bedroom. In some cases, there is little separation between sleeping and living spaces in the lives of the sitters. A man perches on the edge of his bed while evangelical ministers orate on the TV. His prized possession is a life-size ceramic sculpture of a black and white spotted dog.

History painting for Mokgosi is as much a domestic as an official affair. The reclining odalisque, a recurring motif of erotic appeal throughout centuries of Western art, is reimagined as a man lying on his mattress staring directly at the viewer, with a bulge in his crotch, black nap sack hanging from the ceiling with testicular vigor. The object of his arousal? Perhaps the voluptuous black sculpture of a woman with incongruous red lips. Or the image of a glamorous black woman, reverently outlined in gold, that is rendered on canvas via photo-transfer? Or is it the act of being seen, being the subject of our voyeurism?


Meleko Mokgosi Bread, Butter, and Power, 2018 Courtesy of the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery Photo © Monica Nouwens

All the paintings are executed from photographs taken in Botswana and other parts of Southern African but they are not specific portraits and only obliquely refer to identifiable aspects of the area’s political and social trajectory.

The accepted narrative of Western art history has been transformed over the last fifty years by feminist art theory and Mokgosi’s work reflects that knowledge. (His teacher at UCLA was well-known feminist artist Mary Kelly.) That education contributed to his hyper-awareness that it was the dominant culture had established earlier definitions of quality and superiority.


Meleko Mokgosi Bread, Butter, and Power, 2018 Courtesy of the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery Photo © Monica Nouwens

Rather than turn his back on traditional painting, however, Mokgosi uses it to involve his viewers in that legacy both intellectually and emotionally. Not one painting in the series tells us what to think, it just tells us to think. The end wall of the show includes a shelf with his own collections of books and his handwritten notes on a few texts. The last panel of his installation includes hand-printed notes on gender and power.

But Mokgosi doesn’t need any such proof of his conceptual overview. Mokgosi has given us an exhibition of ambition and prowess in service of analyzing the very meaning of such terms. It is on view through July 1.

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