On Sunday, February 19, 2017, I went to the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York, to see the new Meleko Mokgosi exhibition titled Pax Kaffraria. The exhibition featured very large, hyper realistic paintings arranged in eight chapters. The exhibit I went to only had six chapters due to their size. The largest one is 14 feet by 45 feet! However, this is the first time several of the chapters have been exhibited together at the same time. Each chapter had three to eight canvases arranged in a sequence like a movie storyboard. The human figures were life sized or larger. The size allowed me to feel immersed in the images. Mokgosi painted these works between 2011 to 2014.
Mokgosi’s work is a contemporary mixture of figurative painting and historical painting with cinematic elements. The chapters are meant to be viewed in order and from left to right. Faces are always depicted in realistic detail. Bodies are usually fully formed as well. Many times the figures are surrounded by white canvas which brings all the focus on the figure. In some paintings, the background is blurred or fades out which are filmmaking techniques. I could not find a reference to specific artists that influenced Mokgosi, but he has mentioned that film and historical painting have been influences on his own version of storytelling with his groups of paintings. Maybe he calls his groups of paintings chapters because they are telling a story that includes his history and the history of the region.
Mokgosi’s work was meant to show the life of the people of the African country he grew up in, Botswana. He combined images of people from different walks of life with images of historical leaders in southern Africa, religious symbols, animals from the region, and images that show how colonization by the Dutch combined with the African culture. Mokgosi wanted to challenge the way people usually view the history of southern Africa and post-colonialism. He wanted to put images side-by-side to force the viewer to form their own meaning to all of the symbolic images. For example, an image of a white big game hunter with a dead lion is placed beside an image of an African bride in traditional Dutch or European dress surrounded by her body guards. A smiling white child is shown shown hugging an African woman who is probably his nanny. This image is placed beside an image of Dutch supremacy. An African family wearing European style clothes is shown in an image of everyday life in a bedroom with European furniture. Some military leaders were upside-down in paintings which seemed to show their loss of power. Traditional African cattle are placed next to dogs bred in the Netherlands and trained to attack non-whites. Some African students were blurred like they were behind a black veil to show their lack of access to knowledge and quality education.
Mokgosi wanted to show that it’s not possible to put the people of this region into neat categories based on race, class, or age. He wanted to show how the story of this region has had many influences. Mokgosi’s images show that there are many old African traditions that still exist. Also there are many ways that Dutch culture has combined with African culture. White people living in this region are depicted in different roles. Africans are also depicted in different roles. The size of the images and the contrast of so many different images combine to create a powerful experience for the viewer. They fill the entire exhibit space, floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall. The size and realism force the viewer to try to understand the combination of images. The overall effect is that the viewer better understands that there cannot be a single identity that defines what it means to be from the African region now known as Botswana. Mokgosi makes the case with his paintings that the history of this region has to include all of these perspectives.