By GILLIAN McAINSH
Mohau Modisakeng is the 2016 Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art – and what a relevant choice in view of civic protests around the country, black-white relations on a knife-edge and an election next month.
The multidisciplinary artist works as a sculptor and more, hence his exhibition is hard to describe in such a way that it conveys what he does: film, photographic prints, installation and performance, spread over two venues. Make the effort to view both the Monument Gallery and the Gallery in the Round and – if you can – go on the next walkabout on Thursday at 2pm.
This weekend Modisakeng led a walkabout of Lefa La Ntate – Setswana for “for my father’s inheritance” – and knowing what the words mean does help understand what at first glance is a carpet of chunks of black coal and a long table flanked by benches and covered in scratches and markings.
The viewer’s first thought is: what is this all about – something to do with the mines perhaps? In a way it is.
“I’m still trying to make sense of the title as although we often speak of this nation as two decades old, South Africa is a very old country,” says the artist. “We come from a very violent past, going back to the settler wars and before, so we have that history that comes up in our daily lives.”
More recently, he added, the country has had the Marikana killings and labour unrest. “Things seem very tense and people often act as if they don’t understand why this is so, they are detached from it. However, the ideals of the Rainbow Nation have not been realised and this is why the tensions.”
Modisakeng has taken these tensions and framed them as a multimedia art experience: on the opening night of the festival, the long wooden table that forms the centrepiece of the exhibition was also a stage.
“I am interested in the black body in my work, the black male body especially has given so much to the economy,” he said, referring to colonial days and how it still is today. Hence he asked 14 black actors from Grahamstown to play out a symbolic drama, with a figure of authority at one end, and a figure of submission at the other with interaction showing the tension between the two opposites.
One half of the table is made of African mahogany, and the other half a cheaper plywood. In the performance actors cut shapes into these woods, then dip their hands in bowls of black ink and rub the scarified surface with this. Look closely and you’ll see these same markings on our R100 note, linking their labour to the national wealth.
“For a large part of the performance all you hear is the sound of them cutting and carving out. They give their time, and their labour,” says Modisakeng. Then a whistle blows, evocative of the siren on a mine and yet also a township method of communication signaling rebellion and resistance.
The actors do more than make their mark on the wood – they cast their vote, he says, particularly relevant ahead of August 3.
lLefa Na Ntate will go to the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum in Port Elizabeth after the festival, but without the performance component.