Interview with Meleko Mokgosi
by Felicia Mings
An excerpt of an interview conducted over email.
Exhibition view: Spaces of Subjection: Imaging Imaginations II, 2022 in Meleko Mokgosi: Imaging Imaginations, Art Gallery of York University, Toronto (January 20 – June 10, 2023). Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.
This interview was conducted on the occasion of Meleko Mokgosi’s first solo exhibition in Canada, Imaging Imaginations, curated by Felicia Mings and on view at the Art Gallery of York University from January 20 – June 10, 2023.
A pdf of this interview can be found by clicking this link.
Felicia Mings: How did you arrived at the concept Imaging Imaginations and how does the work on view at the AGYU sit in relation to your broader project “Spaces of Subjection,” 2020–ongoing?
Meleko Mokgosi: My first point of interest was to examine space. In 2020, I started to think about the ways in which space had played a key role in previous work, but I did not want to confine this to just figuration. As a result I started to think about space more abstractly to include things like physical space, architectural space, psychic space/reality, history as a discursive space, as well as spaces of the human and non-human, ancestors, spiritual spaces and so on. And from there I built the project around the relationship between space and structure, and in particular, subjection as a structural proposition of becoming. The idea of subjection comes from Michel Foucault, who conceptualized it between 1981 and 1982. In writing about the formation of the human subject and its relationship to structures of power, Foucault had previously used terms that were closely aligned with subjugation. Subjection, however, refines the relationship between the human and structural mechanisms by insisting on the process of how we become human by being subordinated by power. And in many ways, this word becomes more about the ways in which structures are internalized. Or to put it another way, for us to become part of a collective, a community, we are subjected to and we internalize specific rules and norms so that we can be accepted into that community. Imaging Imaginations is part of how and why and what we internalize, in addition to how we want these internalized materials to be perceived by the other.
Mings: You’ve previously shared with me that when creating a work, you often start with photographs—ones you’ve found online, photos you’ve taken or have received from photographers, family, or friends. You combine images and draw out your scenes, similar to the process of film storyboarding, before painting. Spaces of Subjection: Imaging Imaginations I is an 8-panel painting of rich and layered images, from commonplace interior scenes to surreal imagery of domestic and exterior spaces. Here I’m thinking of the imagery such as the man in bed beneath a pile of balloons to peeling billboard images of happy families and people gathered near a gilded bronze eagle throne, similar to the throne of Jean-Bédel Bokassa. So what makes an image significant and compelling enough for you to decide to include it in a composition?
Mokgosi: I think the use of any image is contingent on many things, some known and calculable, and some that are opaque and intuitive. For example, with this set of paintings, I became uncomfortable with having too many interior spaces, and so I had to introduce both exterior spaces and spaces that were not immediately clear about where they were spatially located. There are other factors too like compositional structure; and some images are visually compelling and create a specific narrative texture. For this reason, I spent months storyboarding the whole compositions. This group of paintings took about seven months to storyboard, which really means that I spent all that time making drawings of each panel and figuring out how they were situated in relation to each other. So when you look at the whole group, you can tell that there is a horizontal line that runs through all the panels. The storyboarding is a great way to outline both the formal and thematic elements to the work, but it also means that most of my editing is done at the very early stages before the paintings are made. Sometimes this creates difficulties because editing is central to creating an exhibition, and so it becomes a challenge to create an exhibition of works that do not easily lend themselves to being edited. But all in all, a great deal of work is done in the storyboarding phase to figure out how each image is relational to others in the same project.
Exhibition view: Meleko Mokgosi: Imaging Imaginations, Art Gallery of York University,
Toronto (January 20 – June 10, 2023). Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.
Mings: You are intentional in not just the composition of pictorial elements within each work but also the ways your works are displayed. For instance, Spaces of Subjection: Imaging Imaginations II consists of six discrete canvas panels arranged in a highly specific way. How would you characterize the relationship between the text and image panels in this work? And how did this factor into your considerations of display?
Mokgosi: This is really a continuation of an ongoing interest in the relationship between image and text. I have previously done a large project on African “look books” or photo novels published in the 1940s to 70s, as well as pairing poems with paintings in another project (‘The social revolution of our time cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the poetry of the future,’ 2019). So the scripto-visual, that is: the text as image; or text in image; or text aside image has been important to me for a while. For this work, I wanted to use poetic texts that referred to structures of “Blackness,” trying to think about this concept in a more global context and across issues such as gender and class. To give an example, I used one text that talks about a young black mother who wants to escape with her lover and go to the city with him, leaving everything behind. And in another text by Hamsi (Marie Kathleen Jeffreys), the poem celebrates one’s self as a black subject and rejects the impositions and violences of Whiteness. So I wanted to use poetry with images to articulate a specific positionality because sometimes ambiguity or opacity is not an ideal political strategy.
Meleko Mokgosi, Spaces of Subjection: Imaging Imaginations II, 2022 (panels 2 and 3). Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.
Mings: You collaborated with master printer Brian Shure at Anderson Ranch Art Center in Snowmass Village, Colorado, to produce the final prints of Spaces of Subjection: Imaging Imaginations IV. Since your studio practice of drawing and painting is quite a solo endeavor, can you say a bit about the collaborative process of working with Brian to produce these prints?
Mokgosi: Absolutely, I seldom work with other practitioners and so I was not sure about what would happen in a collaborative process. And it turned out to be an extraordinary experience, one which I ended up gaining more than beautiful etchings, but developing a rich and meaningful friendship with Brian. And I hope the feeling is mutual! Because of the nature of my work — given the scale and materials, I don’t usually do residencies because they are brief and I am unable to do much painting. But I had wanted to get back to printmaking for sometime, and so when Meriwether sent this incredible invitation to come to Anderson Ranch, my first instinct was to work in the print shop. I had heard a lot about it and so could only envision myself doing nothing else. I arrived at Anderson Ranch without much of a plan, which is also unusual. My approach always involves months of research — storyboarding all the paintings, and then acquiring images before making the paintings. But on this occasion, I wanted to leave things open. The only plan was to make etchings that integrated text and image. Once I arrived, Brian set me up with different stations to try dry-point, hard and soft ground etching, and some lithography. So I spent three days just experimenting with line. And after that we discussed what a possible project would look like. And this is the privilege of working with a master printer; all I did was draw: he etched and printed — making extraordinary recommendations along the way about what kind of ink to use, what kind of paper weight, texture, colour, size and so forth. So I was totally reliant on his expertise of what materials would best suit the image and text. But most of the time I resisted, and so we had to compromise on some things. For example, I would really want to work on a copper plate that was 24” x 36” and he would strongly recommend I not do it because the press was not that big. But we did it anyway just to see how it would turn out. And in all occasions he had an incredible vision of what kind of ink colour and translucency/opacity would be ideal, and also the kind of paper, and he as always spot on. And I need not say anything about when we started doing chine collé. It was just pure magic! After all, he did write the definitive book on the history and practice of it. All in all, if I were to somewhat summarize it, I would say the collaborative process is about speculative contingency, and having the willingness to trust and respect the knowledge that someone brings to the table.
Exhibition view: Spaces of Subjection: Imaging Imaginations IV, 2022 in Meleko Mokgosi: Imaging Imaginations, Art Gallery of York University, Toronto (January 20 – June 10, 2023). Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.
Mings: Imaging Imaginations is on view at the Art Gallery of York University, and so I’d be remiss not to bring up the fact that in addition to your active studio practice, you are co-director of Graduate Studies in Painting/Printmaking at Yale University’s School of Art. In what ways has a consistent engagement with students been generative to your conceptual and material ways of working?
Mokgosi: Teaching has been very important. As a practitioner, I have always occupied two positions: an educator and a painter, and so I am constantly pushed to reexamine the role of the cultural producer through my engagement with our students, and the evolving and expanding context of the cultural producer, which continues to fold in numerous histories, experiences, and methodologies. To this end, the utility of art, and the maker are always up for questioning. And so, what I cannot do in my studio work, I am able to do in my teaching: which is to ask specific theoretical questions that are not necessarily situated in painting, yet devoted to aesthetics. As artists, our work happens within the field of representation. Representation is a communicative practice that always anticipates an interlocutor. Representation then, which is rooted in mediation through language and literacy, depends on convention or discourses with distinct rules. Therefore the work of art is not defined by some essence or trans-historical and transcendental forces and universal truths; rather, every artwork is grounded by its historical conditions of origin and perception. Therefore, this is the work of aesthetics, which broadly speaking refers to a general theory of the experience of beauty or the philosophy of taste and art. Beyond this narrow definition of aesthetics, I have found Michael Kelly’s discussion of aesthetics useful. I hope its okay that I conclude with a bit of a lengthy quotation. Writing in support for transdisciplinary aesthetics, Kelly offers the following:
Aesthetics is critical thinking, imagining, and making about the normative dimensions—reflected in affects and beliefs, concepts and principles, purposes and values—of art, culture, design, everyday life, and nature. It includes critical imagining and making as well as thinking, because aesthetics begins experientially and experimentally at the level of practice in all these domains and is articulated conceptually at the level of critical thinking. The different modalities—thinking, imagining, and making—happen simultaneously at times, sequentially at others.
And so the readings and research I am able to do in the academic context, and conversation with our students, enriches my studio practices and fosters diverse ways of thinking about aesthetics and theoretical approaches.
Mings: You’ve exhibited throughout the United States and Europe, as well as Cameroon and South Africa, and now, for the first time, in Canada. What, if any, are the expectations or hopes you have for how audiences experience your art in different locales? Are you conscious about how histories of, say, everyday life in southern Africa or African American experiences, are consumed within and outside of these places?
Mokgosi: I have thought about different versions of this question for a while, so thank you for asking it. I don’t usually have specific expectations apart from a desire to want the audience to recognize my investment in the issues and topics I try to tackle in the work. Different audiences will always bring particular baggage with them, as well as their own tools of analysis and reading and so I do not think I have a right to demand a set of analytic protocols and tools of reading, or demand specific frames of references from a viewer; to do so would be the same as saying that I think I know what the viewer should learn or what the viewer should get out of the experience of reading or engaging with an aesthetic object. I remember watching a Charlie Rose interview he did with Toni Morrison, and he asked her about the question of audience, and so she thoughtfully addresses it with the idea that an artist has to carefully balance who the artwork is addressing by developing a productive language and the work being open enough or abstract enough so that the artwork can be read by any audience. This was not so much an argument for universalism, but more about how an artist develops language forms that are specific yet speculative.
© Meleko Mokgosi & Art Gallery of York University
Published: May 10, 2023