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For South African artist, self portraits reflect life, history

The artist, dressed in a cow-hide apron, Trillby hat and blinders, poses surrounded by hills of unused asphalt.
Provided by Laumeier Sculpture Park.
Mohau Modisakeng, Endabeni 1, 2015.

Drawn in by the landscape, South African artist Mohau Modisakeng hiked out to municipal yards holding heaps of asphalt in Nbabeni, a township outside Cape Town. Surrounded by road maintenance materials, he donned a cow-hide apron, trillby hat, and blinkers and began shooting the video and pictures that would become the artwork "To Move Mountains," currently on display at Laumeier Sculpture Park.

Modisakeng is the 2016 winner of the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist Award, one of South Africa’s major art awards. His work offers a look into how artists in other countries address racism and include images of black people. His approach is both personal and political.

“I’m concerned about my own heritage, trying to understand how I’ve arrived where I am as a black South African in the post-Apartheid moment, and most of the answers seem to be in the past,” Modisakeng said. “For me to understand who I am today and who I will be tomorrow I have to engage my past.”

Although planned well before the controversial exhibit by Kelley Walker at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Modisakeng’s show opens at a time when the region's arts community is still addressing issues of how black bodies are depicted and related to social justice conversations.

Born in the Soweto Township to working-class parents, he uses his experience growing up there and attending art school to inform his work. 

Modisakeng’s video and images place his own body firmly in a landscape connected to the history of racism and economic inequality in his home country. The artist’s images and video show him in various poses positioned against the mounds of asphalt in the municipal yard.

He created his work outside Nbabeni, a township developed after a bubonic plague outbreak in Cape Town caused authorities to set up a field hospital and isolation camp outside the city. South Africa's Apartheid government once used the segregated camp to house  black migrant workers it had removed from the city. The practice would become one of the government's defining characteristics.

Modisakeng admits the project’s reference points might not be obvious for viewers outside South Africa. But he believes the relationship between humans and terrain is relatable everywhere.

“I would like viewers to understand that memory has a way of connecting our bodies to the landscape and I think that the landscape or the terrain itself has this memory underneath it,” he said. “I would like for the audience to place themselves in these images, replace this figure they see in the photographs with their own image, and how they imagine the photographs work.”

Modisakeng explains the relationship between race, labor, and colonialism in South Africa as examined in his art.

Marilu Knode, executive director of Laumeier Sculpture Park, shares Modisakeng’s belief that the work is relatable to people outside South Africa even though the images specifically speak to that particular history. Knode was introduced to the artist’s work in 2014 while visiting the country. 

“Mohau’s work has resonance not just for St. Louis, today, but for our country and the conversations we’ve been having since our last civil rights movement of the 1960s,” Knode said. “His video work 'To Move Mountains' deals not just with the physical landscape but also the social, cultural and political landscapes that shape our lives. The resonance is real, and haunting, and is about the commonality of human behavior throughout time.”

Mohau Modisakeng stands next to one of his paintings wearing a shirt that says South Africa and a Trillby Hat.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Modisakeng oversaw the instillation of his work and gave several talks in the week prior to opening his show at Laumeier Sculpture Park.

Modisakeng was born into a working-class family where he “understood my parent’s time was never their own.”  As a boy, he had trouble understanding his parents' frequent absence until he realized they worked to take care of him and his siblings. In his work, he aims to address how black South African identity is sometimes tied to labor stemming from racist policies that restricted blacks to certain jobs.

He uses specific objects to represent those connections:

·         Trilby Hat: Its use symbolizes manhood and Modisakeng’s father’s generation, which moved from rural South Africa to cities where they sometimes adopted the white colonial gentleman’s hat as a means to show they were members of urban society.

·         Horse blinkers: Blinkers indicate that the dominant historical narrative can control how people think of themselves and their culture by omitting a broader worldview.

·         Apron: The apron is part of a uniform from local workshops but is often made of cow-hide, which in older African traditions would indicate wealth and a higher social class. It refers to the system of labor in South Africa

Modisakeng outlines the objects he uses in his film and video work and the meaning behind these symbols.

Modisakeng also sees his work as a way to break down barriers across race, class, and even location.  For him, connecting with American audiences through the images can help break down stereotypes of his home country.

“So I would like for people to relate what they see in the photographs to what they know about Africa and what they know about the world in general because that helps in creating a narrative that is not necessarily proscribed,” said the artist.

If you go

What: Mohau Modisakeng at Laumeier Sculpture Park

Where: Laumeier Sculpture Park, Whitaker Foundation Gallery at the Adam Aronson Fine Arts Center, 12580 Rott Road, Saint Louis

When: Nov. 5.-Jan. 29

Admission: Free